“The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” which opens in D.C. theaters on Friday, is a powerful exploration of resistance, female desire and the horrors of conversion therapy. The film premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival where is was awarded the festival’s highest award, the Grand Jury Prize.
Directed by out filmmaker Desiree Akhavan, and based on the popular teen novel by Emily Danforth, “Miseducation” is the story of Cameron Post (played by Chloë Grace Moretz), a lesbian teen who is beginning to explore her sexuality. Cameron is outed when she and her girlfriend Coley (Quinn Shephard) are discovered having sex in the back seat of a car on prom night.
Cameron’s evangelical family quickly whisk her away to “God’s Promise,” a conversion therapy camp run by Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) and her brother Reve. Rick (John Gallagher Jr.), an ex-gay who is one of his sister’s success stories. Cameron quickly befriends Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane of “Hearts Beat Loud”) and Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck) and the three quickly (and ironically) discover the power of gay solidarity.
Akhavan read the novel years ago and loved it.
“After I made my first film,” Akhavan says, “I gave the book to my writing/producing partner Cecilia Frugiuele and said, ‘One day we’ll make this.’ Cecilia read the book, got the rights, and said, ‘We’re doing this next.’”
But the year-long adaptation process was not easy.
“The first draft was very loyal to the book,” Akhavan recalls, but the script just wasn’t working. “We wondered why the script wasn’t as compelling as the novel and tried to find the kernel of excitement that made us want to make the book into a movie in the first place. What we finally realized was that we missed the tone of the book — that blend of teen comedy with drama and pathos mixed in.”
Moretz says she was drawn to the script “by a multitude of things. First and foremost,” she says, “it was a really naturalistic depiction of being a young gay person and meeting other gay people for the first time and realizing you are not alone. That was really refreshing.”
The actress was also drawn to the script’s take on the timeless female coming-of-age tale.
“It’s the age-old story of becoming a woman, struggling against a society that wants to tell you you’re not allowed to speak up and that you’re not allowed to have an opinion and you’re supposed to sit there and look pretty. It’s about finding your power and your confidence and realizing you can speak. It’s not just about being gay, it’s about being a teenager and becoming a woman.”
Beyond that, she says, “the script was written impeccably; Desi and Cecilia wrote it so that everything flowed in a beautiful manner. It was just up to us to let it breathe. It walked this really delicate line between comedy and sadness and also not demonizing religion. The Marshes are misguided but they’re not necessarily malicious. They’re trying to do their best. … It comes down to the queer female lens of Desi and how she was able to do all those things at once. I hadn’t been seen that before.”
Both director and star were excited about shooting the passionate sex scenes that were central to telling Cameron’s story.
As a feminist filmmaker, Akhavan wanted to honestly capture the power of female sexuality.
“There’s not much communicated on screen about the female experience and about women and intimacy and lust,” she says. “I think women should feel empowered to want and to desire and to fuck.”
So, when it came time to shoot the pivotal car scene, Akhavan decided to let Moretz and Shephard rehearse the scene on their own. “I had storyboards I had sketched and I had ideas in my head, but once we got there, I said, ‘Fuck it, just let them do it.’”
Moretz appreciated Akhavan’s hands-off approach.
“In every sex scene I’ve done in the past, I was terrified about how it was going to be handled,” Moretz says. “With this, I knew what my intentions were and I knew that Desi would handle it correctly. This was the first time I felt that way and I’ve been doing sex scenes since I was 16. “
The result was amazing.
“It was the most spectacular moment I’ve ever had in front of a monitor, Akhavan says. “The girls were so in it, both the joy and the lust and then the distraught horror of being caught. It was all in real time and mostly plays in one shot.”
“As a filmmaker,” Akhavan says, “I really live to shoot sex scenes. There’s no greater joy for me.”
REVIEW: ‘Cameron Post’ deftly balances comedy, drama
Set in 1993, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” stars Chloë Grace Moretz as Cameron, a teenager who lives with her conservative aunt after losing both parents in an automobile accident. While attending her high school’s homecoming dance, she is caught making out with another girl in the backseat of a car. She quickly finds herself being sent off to a remote “summer camp” in the Montana wilderness where residents are subjected to counseling designed to realign their sexual orientation.
Cooperative at first, she finds kindred spirits among the other teens and attempts to settle in for the duration; but as she becomes more aware of the psychological damage being inflicted on her fellow campers, she begins to realize that this ostensibly loving environment is a dangerous fraud.
The film initially creates an almost comedic tone, allowing us a few sly chuckles over the excessively wholesome atmosphere of the camp and the obvious denial of its “ex-gay” counselors. As the story progresses however, the layers begin to peel back.
Moretz is excellent in the title role, riding an intelligent wave of thoughtful writing that is worthy of her talents. Sasha Lane and Forrest Goodluck, as Cameron’s camp friends, bring authenticity and wry humor to their roles.
In fact, the only character that fails – appropriately – to elicit audience sympathy is the camp’s overseer, Dr. Lydia Marsh. In the hands of two-time Tony-winner Jennifer Ehle, she is perhaps the most coldly sanctimonious screen villain since Nurse Ratched.
“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” is not a flashy piece of cinema; Akhavan, in directing her second feature, has rightly chosen to tell the story straightforwardly, letting the fine acting and writing carry the weight.
— JOHN PAUL KING