Cameron Post doesn’t necessarily think of herself as gay.
But after being caught in the back of a car with another teen girl on prom night, the protagonist of the new film The Miseducation of Cameron Post is labeled “a homosexual” and sent to God’s Promise, an evangelical gay conversion therapy center.
Lorded over by the steely Dr. Lydia Marsh and her formerly gay brother Reverend Rick, the center teaches its “disciples” how to repent for the sin of homosexuality and embrace a heterosexual lifestyle.
The film is based on the young adult novel The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth. Film director Desiree Akhavan was prompted by an ex-girlfriend to adapt the screenplay and did so with co-writer Cecilia Frugiuele.
“I’d never seen the truth of being a teenager reflected in a narrative before,” Akhavan says. “I felt like it would make a fantastic film. A film that would speak to coming of age in the way John Hughes films did to me when I was growing up.”
In creating the milieu of God’s Promise, where Cameron bunks with a Minnesota Vikings superfan, Akhavan pulled from her own experience in residential eating disorders treatment.
“When I first entered rehab, I looked around and I remember thinking everyone was completely stupid and the situation was pointless,” she says. Over the course of her treatment, however, she came to realize the other patients were just like her, and the reason she felt so antagonistic towards them was because she felt that way toward herself.
“I very much wanted Cameron to go on a similar journey. I had a really positive experience in those rooms and I think in some ways Cameron does, too, in that she finds a family of friends and allies and can be honest for the first time,” she says.
Though the film uses God’s Promise as the setting, “this isn’t really about gay conversion therapy,” Akhavan says. “It’s about a teen girl’s coming of age.” Akhavan, who identifies as bisexual, based introverted yet confident Cameron on “every woman I’ve ever loved,” she says.
The film is set in 1993, although gay conversion therapy remains a current problem. The practice is still legal in 36 states nationwide, including Minnesota, despite rallies at the Capitol and an attempt earlier this year by Sen. Scott Dibble, Rep. Erin Maye Quade, and OutFront to push a bill banning conversion therapy on minors and vulnerable adults through the Legislature.
While Akhavan believes the internet makes it easier for LGBTQ+ youth to connect to one another and to identify role models and allies, “it doesn’t mean that female sexuality isn’t vilified or that growing up gay is easy in this country,” she says. In the year of research she did for the film, she found that those who went through gay conversion therapy suffered severe consequences, from shame to self-hatred to suicide.
Akhavan, who felt “really demonized for all the sexual impulses I had growing up,” doesn’t divide the film’s characters into “good” and “evil” but instead treats them all with a kind of detached compassion. Save for the merciless Dr. Marsh, there are no villains or heroes in the film, only individuals struggling to understand themselves and where they fit in, regardless of sexuality, gender identification, or religious beliefs.
“I never wanted to have religion or the religious characters be the butt of the joke in the film,” Akhavan says. “We wanted to portray them honestly and with empathy. I have no judgment for Christians. I think the heads of this center are misinterpreting the Bible, but they’re doing it with full hearts, they’re doing it with the intention of saving these kids. I always wanted to be really sensitive and empathetic to their plights.”
Akhavan was also sensitive to diversity, casting Native actor Forrest Goodluck as Lakota two-spirit Adam and biracial actress Sasha Lane as amputee stoner Jane, both of whom bond strongly with Cameron, played by Chloë Grace Moretz. “I wanted the cast to be reflective of life as I know it, which is diverse and full of lots of different types of ethnicities,” says Akhavan, who is Iranian-American.
The film, which opens Friday in Minneapolis, has received rave reviews and won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Ultimately, Akhavan hopes that all viewers will be able to relate to the characters. As she says, “I make movies to feel less alone and I hope that my audience leaves feeling less alone.”