- 07 Sep 18
Unlikely to find favour with Mike Pence, director Desiree Akhavan’s new film, The Miseducation Of Cameron Post, is a powerful drama about the harm wrought by gay conversion therapy.
For men, directing an acclaimed indie film can often lead to a blockbuster. Think of 500 Days Of Summer director Marc Webb, who got to helm The Amazing Spider-Man; or Colin Treverrow, whose success with the small indie comedy Safety Not Guaranteed led him to direct the blockbuster Jurassic World.
Then there’s Gareth Evans, who made his directorial debut Monsters for less than $500,000, only to be handed $160 million to make Godzilla. This doesn’t happen to women directors – as Desiree Akhavan knows. Though the writer, actress and director received critical acclaim for her directorial debut Appropriate Behaviour – as well as for her successful web series The Slope and her appearance in Girls – Hollywood did not come a-calling.
“I now think it was for the best, but there weren’t a lot of opportunities coming to me from mainstream Hollywood,” reflects Akhavan. “But I made my own opportunities, which was really good, as my new film is a really good reflection of my taste and skillset. But I think every step of the way, it’s been about creating my own openings. I’ve never had anyone put anything in my lap.”
The opportunities she’s creating are beautiful. Akhavan’s new film The Miseducation Of Cameron Post, starring Chloe Grace Moretz, is adapted from Emily M. Danforth’s graceful, subtle coming-of-age story, which takes place in a gay conversion therapy camp. Akhavan started thinking about making the film in 2014, before conversion therapy supporter Mike Pence became Vice-President. The 34-year-old director says the film wasn’t intended to be political – but it is.
“To me, this was never about gay conversion therapy – though whatever light we can shed on that, I am grateful,” she notes. “This was always a coming of age story, and this teen going to the centre was the perfect metaphor for every teen’s coming-of-age, which is feeling diseased for being who you are and for what sets you apart. I think every human can relate to feeling that way when they were a teenager.”
The film and its source book are fiction, though they were both inspired by real people and events. One disturbing plot point about an attempted self-castration is real, and Akhavan learned more horrific details about conversion therapy during her research.
“Before we went into production, we met with a group of young men who had undergone gay conversion therapy in their youth,” she explains. “They were now advocating against it publicly. Mathew Shurka was one of them; he’s doing some of the press with us now, as we advocate against gay conversion therapy. He spoke to us about his own experience with the process: as a teenager he was prescribed Viagra, and was forced to have sex with young women. And even though he lived at home with his mother and sisters, for two years he was not allowed to speak with them at all, because they were considered negative, feminine influences.
“He was deemed to be ‘too feminine’ and told he needed more masculine figures in his life. So he was essentially frozen out of his own family. Mathew is 26 now, I believe, and this was in Long Island, which is just miles from where I grew up. It brought home to me how this was still happening everywhere.”
GROWING UP QUEER
Given that most of the young characters in the film are queer, and Akhavan’s own bisexuality, she felt that authenticity was paramount. Of late, this issue has come under discussion with Disney’s controversial decision to cast straight actor and comedian Jack Whitehall as their first openly gay character.
“With filmmaking, it’s important that if you’re making a queer film, your heads of department and creative team are queer,” says Akhavan. “But with my actors, they were almost all teenagers, and I don’t think it’s my business to ask them about their sexuality. Actors are sexualised so young, and when you talk about their queerness, you’re also sexualising them. Think of the amount of young actors who are closeted because of our assumptions about their sexuality, and our attachment to their sexuality.
“There’s something highly suspect and fucked up about that. I understand the trans actor debate – it’s so rare that you see trans characters, that that portrayal has a real power to it. It can be really problematic having cis actors play those roles. But when it comes to minors and their sexuality, I don’t think it’s appropriate to have that conversation.”
Akhavan instead focused on having authentic creators, including an editor and cinematographer who are queer women. And her own queerness gave her insight into how LGBTQ teens are often undermined by straight coming-of-age stories that too often prioritise romance – an idea she consciously upends in The Miseducation Of Cameron Post and her upcoming Channel 4 series, The Bisexual.
“Growing up queer, it was really toxic to see all these films repeatedly saying that only straight romantic love could save you,” says Akhavan. “As a result I, like many queer young people, didn’t think anyone could love me – and so how would my life become better? But that was not the case at all. There is more than one type of love. Romantic love usually doesn’t last that long – it either settles into something weird and ambiguous that’s not that lustful, or it fades. It’s the other non-romantic loves in your life that take you somewhere. That’s certainly true in my life.”
The Miseducation Of Cameron Post is in cinemas today, September 7.