The Miseducation Of Cameron Post
Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, Jennifer Ehle, Quinn Shephard
Director: Desiree Akhavan
Genre: Drama, Romance
Running Time: 110 minutes
Synopsis: Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz) looks the part of a perfect high school girl. But after she's caught with another girl in the back seat of a car on prom night, Cameron is quickly shipped off to a conversion therapy center that treats teens "struggling with same-sex attraction."
At the facility, Cameron is subjected to outlandish discipline, dubious "de-gaying" methods, and earnest Christian rock songs - but this unusual setting also provides her with an unlikely gay community. For the first time, Cameron connects with peers, and she's able to find her place among fellow outcasts.
Writer/director Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behavior) and co-writer Cecilia Frugiuele sensitively adapt Emily Danforth's acclaimed eponymous coming-of-age novel and create a refreshingly original teen movie. Balancing out inherent drama with understated humour, The Miseducation Of Cameron Post looks at a teenage girl grappling with pain and loss, but at the same time, she is creating a family on her own terms and learning what it means to empower herself by having confidence in her own identity.
The Miseducation Of Cameron Post
Release Date: September 6th, 2018
About The Production
Filmmaker Desiree Akhavan was working on a book in 2011 when a publisher sent her a pre-publication copy of Emily M. Danforth's young adult novel "The Miseducation of Cameron Post." Set in Montana in the early 1990s, the 470-page book follows eight years in the life of its titular heroine. Cameron is 12 years old and just beginning to discover her homosexuality when her parents are killed. She is sent to live with her evangelical aunt and uncle, who send her to a Christian gay conversion center when they found out about her sexuality.
Akhavan was moved and impressed by the novel, which is written in the first person. "The book spoke really honestly about coming of age and it just happened to be gay. Cameron's gayness was the whole plot but it still didn't feel like a gay issue story. It didn't feel condescending or preachy or affected. It felt just as relatable and truthful as all other really good YA novels," she says. "I always thought if I were to make a movie, I would focus on the last 200 pages with her time at the conversion center."
She revisited the idea four years later, while traveling the 2015 festival circuit with her feature debut Appropriate Behavior. Akhavan wrote, directed and starred in the film, a comedy about a twentysomething Persian-American woman and her floundering attempts to be an ideal Persian daughter, politically correct bisexual and cool Brooklynite. The film was exceptionally well received, with critics remarking on Akhavan's distinctive voice and smart, off-kilter humor.
Akhavan wasn't sure what she wanted to do next. She and producer Cecilia Fruguiele were discussing possible future projects and Akhavan gave her "The Miseducation of Cameron Post" as something they might consider down the road. As Akhavan tells it, "The minute Cecilia started reading, she said, 'This is our next film.' And Cecilia's not gay so I was little surprised she wanted to make another gay film. But she loved it so much."
In its humor, insight and respect for its teen characters, the novel put the filmmakers in mind of classic John Hughes films like The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles. "It's interesting. Both Cecilia and I love John Hughes films,"comments Akhavan. "I don't think there have been great teen films since John Hughes. There was something in the book that was really special. It was funny and had this feeling of an ensemble teen cast. Everyone's there for a different reason and everyone's reacted to the situation differently. The story was like a hybrid of high school coming-of-age, rehabilitation and boarding school film. It was a very rich environment for our characters."
Akhavan and Fruguiele had already been working on a screenplay together and decided to partner on the adaptation. Before they could begin, however, they needed to determine their point of entry to the story. In doing so, Akhavan looked to her own experience seeking treatment for an eating disorder at a rehabilitation center where she was in her mid-20s. The therapeutic process itself; the different histories and attitudes that patients brought to their treatment; the relationships or antipathies that formed among a group of people living together in a controlled situation: these were ongoing areas of interest to Akhavan.
"I love stories that take place in rehabilitation centers and I've always wanted to do a project that talked about what it felt like to be in those rooms," she remarks. "It's about 'getting better,' but what is that? It looks different for each person. People also create alliances on the basis of how committed they are to getting better or to not getting better. I was looking at the book again and it hit me: what is 'better' when you can't 'pray away the gay?' That was the kernel of an idea that Cecilia and I started with in writing the screenplay."
Akhavan and Fruguiele began writing the screenplay in March 2015 after optioning the novel. Extensive research helped them flesh out the particulars of the film's primary setting, a Christian gay conversion therapy center called God's Promise. They read all the literature they could find that related to the subject, including books on battling homosexuality and gay conversion psychology. They found that ex-gay communities exist in all over the world and listened to sermons preached in those communities. God's Promise is the brainchild of Dr. Lydia Marsh, who established the residential therapy center after "curing" her brother Reverend Rick and restoring him to healthy heterosexuality. The children at the center wear uniforms, attend classes and sermons and bunk with assigned roommates. Lydia's treatment protocol blends traditional techniques like group and individual therapy sessions with oddities like "the iceberg," an illustration exercise intended to help the kids identify the root causes of their gayness. "I always saw Lydia as the most intelligent person in every room she's in," says Akhavan. "She wanted to heal her brother. I think the conversion therapy started off as experimental and she found other therapists who were interested in this kind of work." Lydia is deeply serious about her work and doesn't cut the children any slack. She's very much an authority figure, not unlike a headmistress at a prep school, Akhavan notes. "A good head of school is tough, is intimidating, and gets the job done. Lydia sees these kids as her children and thinks she's protecting them. She's a generous person with a lot of heart… who's completely wrong in how she thinks about sexuality and is teaching these kids to hate themselves. That's the messy part – everyone decides for themselves what's right and what's wrong. Good intentions can lead to terrible actions."
Flashbacks in the story illuminate Cameron's love affair with her best friend Coley. They seize every chance they can get to be alone, getting turned on as they watch VHS tapes of lesbian-themed movies like Personal Best and Desert Hearts. On prom night, they sneak off to the back seat of a car to smoke pot and fool around. After they're caught, Cameron gets sent off to God's Promise. Thrust into a strange environment, Cameron is polite and agreeable and plays her cards close to her vest. Though she doesn't let on, she's not particularly interested in being cured.
Cameron finds like-minded fellowship with the camp's two misfits, Jane Fonda and Adam Red Eagle. Among other things, Jane and Adam are cultivating a mini pot garden in the nearby woods, and Jane stashes their weed in the prosthetic leg she's worn since a car accident. "Jane and Adam are the only people there Cameron can be honest with," says Akhavan. "She's never met other gay people before. She's never had a conversation about it. She's able now to have these people in her life who totally get it."
Jane and Adam not only get it, they're unapologetic about it. Neither have any intention of renouncing their orientation. "Jane and Adam have a very different scale of reference than all the other kids because they're not as religious," Akhavan comments. "Jane's mother married a religious man and Adam's father went into politics and had to adopt Christianity for political reasons. But they weren't raised with this so they can see through it. Whereas Cameron was raised this way after her parents died and she went to live with her evangelical aunt."
But like any teenager, Cameron is susceptible to self-doubt. "In a way, the film is tracking how this center could break the will of an intelligent girl who had a good sense of who she was before she came in. How can you brainwash a person into hating themselves? I think that emblematic of the teen experience overall. I think most people are fine before puberty and then you become a teen and you just start to question everything about yourself."
Ultimately, events in the film lead Cameron to question the received truths that have thus far shaped her life. "A lot of the story to me, and a lot of what John Hughes' films are about, is that moment when you realize that the adults don't have all the answers. Or maybe any answers. Everything you're told comes from people who have been alive longer and you just assume it's correct. But then at a certain point, you have to decide for yourself what's right."
Akhavan and Fruguiele wrote numerous drafts of the screenplay, working on it for about a year. They found financing and a production partner early on in Beachside Films (Morris From America, The Incredible Jessica James). In the late summer of 2016, Akhavan traveled from her home in London to New York, where she and casting director Jessica Daniels began the search for the film's Cameron. Chlöe Grace Moretz was in the midst of a hiatus when she learned about The Miseducation Of Cameron Post in September 2016. Since her breakout role in 2010's Kick-Ass, Moretz had starred and co-starred in numerous high profile, largely studio-based films like Let Me In, Hugo, Kick-Ass 2 and If I Stay. She was ready for a change. "I had chosen to take some time off and basically reboot my career," she explains. "I wanted to make movies that felt poignant and inspiring to me as a person and relevant to the state of world."
Moretz knew Akhavan from Appropriate Behavior and was keen to read the filmmaker's new screenplay. Moretz works with her brother, who read the screenplay first and told him to call her after she'd finished it. "I read it within an hour. I called my brother and said, 'First of all, this is one of the most beautifully written scripts I've ever read. And secondly, this is the path that I want to go on in my career.'"
Meanwhile Akhavan was in New York and increasingly concerned that Cameron might never appear. She was on the phone with Beachside producer Michael Clark when casting director Jessica Daniels came into the room. "Michael and I were talking about how it would be irresponsible to make the film without a Cameron we loved and how it was looking like we weren't going to go into production," she recalls. "Jessica set a Post- It in front of me that said 'Chloe wants to meet.' I didn't see it coming because Chloe has such a different track record. And once we spoke it was like, yes, of course she's Cameron. I framed that Post-It and it's in my room right now."
From their initial meeting, it was clear that filmmaker and actor were very much of the same mind in their goals for the film. "Desi and I wanted this to be, at its core, a positive movie," affirms Moretz. "We didn't want to beat people over the head with a lesson. It was more about showing the viewer these beautiful interpersonal relationships among these teenage kids who for the first time are coming into contact with other gay kids like themselves. Even though it's under the veil of secrecy from the heads of the camp, they're having their first moments of realization with each other that they're not alone in this. That there are other people out there like them and that this isn't crazy."
Cameron has a solid sense of self; she's not in denial about her sexuality nor is she ashamed. Moretz was struck by her character's strength and clarity of mind as she reckons with her situation at God's Promise. "From the beginning, Cameron is aware of what's happening, what she's going through. It's like 'Oh, shoot, I ended up here because I got caught. Not because I made a mistake but because I got caught,'" observes Moretz. "Cameron's an incredible person. She's put into these horrific circumstances and has all these ideas forced upon her but she doesn't sit there and brood. She does try her best to be the best person that she can be."
Akhavan praises the depth and nuance Moretz brought to the role. "Chloe has such range and I don't think that she's any one thing. This is such a departure from how many people know her. She brought a kind of swagger to Cameron, a self-knowledge but vulnerability as well. It's a delicate balance and she nailed it."
With Moretz onboard, the filmmakers turned their attention to casting siblings Lydia Marsh and Reverend Rick. Akhavan was delighted when Tony Award winners Jennifer Ehle (A Quiet Passion, Little Men) and John Gallagher, Jr. ("Olive Kitteridge," "The Newsroom") signed on. "It was tricky because whoever we cast as Rick, we had to have the right Lydia and vice versa," Akhavan explains. "One depended on the other. We all thought John and Jennifer were a great fit as brother and sister because they have a similar sensibility, an inherent kindness and intelligence."
Ehle was intrigued by Lydia and took on the role despite a packed schedule that included filming a second movie in New York in the same time frame. "I couldn't pass up the challenge of finding a way into somebody who sees the world so differently from how I do," she comments. "It was just feasible to squeeze it in. At first I was afraid that I wouldn't have time to give it the thought and attention that Lydia needed and deserved and that the film needed and deserved. But I couldn't let it go because I really loved it." Research helped her get a grasp on Lydia. She watched videos and read books about religious recruitment, conversion therapy and saving souls. "It was important to get a sense of what her point of view would be and what her beliefs are," Ehle says. "Lydia doesn't have a sadistic bone in her body and she believes that everything she is doing is a necessary evil to ensure the children's happiness forevermore. Lydia truly believes that there is a forevermore to prepare for. If somebody really is doing something that is going to harm them for eternity, you want to stop them in any way you can. When you see a child about to put their hand into a flame, you do whatever you have to do to make them pay attention to you."
Gallagher was interested in the project even before he read the screenplay. "I'd seen Appropriate Behavior and thought Desiree was such a strong and exciting new filmmaker and I was really eager to see what she would create next. I jumped at the chance to get to work with her," he affirms. "Then I read the script, which swept me away in all of its humanity. It was keenly observed and had a lot of heart and I believed and felt for all of the characters."
He appreciated the portrait of Reverend Rick as a quietly conflicted human being who sought to provide an example of someone who was happily cured of homosexuality. "Rick is a kind, compassionate person who really believes he is doing the right thing and helping these kids in an hour of need," Gallagher observes. "At the same time I felt that he was putting up a bit of a facade to cover his own self-doubts about his sexual identity and faith. He's a beautifully drawn character."
The film's other major characters are Jane Fonda and Adam Red Eagle, whom become Cameron's friends and support network. Jane is a natural leader and the role required a commanding presence. Daniels urged Akhavan to see Andrea Arnold's recently released American Honey, which featured a stunning performance from Sasha Lane, who had no previous acting experience and was cast after Arnold spotted her on a Florida beach. Midway through the film, Akhavan texted Daniels and told her to offer Lane the part. "Sasha lights up the screen in a way I've never seen anybody do before," Akhavan remarks. "Sasha has a wisdom, her eyes communicate that she's not naïve, she's not green. She's tough but she's also so young and so vulnerable. She was perfect for the character."
Lane flew from L.A. to New York to meet with Akhavan and read the screenplay on the plane. "The story really hit home for me, coming from a household where my brother's gay and I'm gay," she says. "I liked Jane, who has a free spirit and her own way of thinking. She grew up in a community where everyone was free and lived life in a certain way. Then her mother brought her into a community that was very conservative and unaccepting of her. But both those communities were boxes. I could relate to that because, regardless of how free I am in spirit, I grew up in Texas and that is kind of like a box."
Jane is not without fear, though. Says Lane, "As much as Jane wants to be this badass and as much as she tries to take charge and make everyone think that she's perfectly fine, in the back of her mind, this is a scary situation for her. But she still tries to push through and I admire that."
With Moretz and Lane already cast, Akhavan began looking for a young Native American actor to play Adam, Jane's wry funny best friend. Among those auditioning was Forrest Goodluck, who made a striking debut in The Revenant. "Forrest has got a great deadpan," says Akhavan. "He fit so well with Chloe and Sasha, and he and Sasha had a real comfort with each other. He's a smart kid and he brings a sophistication to his comedy that was needed in that role."
Goodluck was moved by the friendship between Adam and Jane. "Their friendship was so sweet and so real. Sasha Lane quickly became a good friend of mine on set and this made it so easy to portray one of the sweetest friendships in a movie. I think Adam and Jane helped each other survive a terrible horror, and like most all Indians and minorities alike, they survived the horror with their only weapon, humor.
The role offered Goodluck, whose ancestry is Dine, Mandan, Hidatsa and Tsimshian Native American, the opportunity to learn about an identity in Native culture that had been unfamiliar to him. "Adam is a Lakota boy who self-identifies as Winkte or 'two spirit.' He doesn't identify as 'gay' or 'bisexual' or 'transgender.' The literal translation of Winkte is 'killed by woman,' meaning that the male spirit within Adam was killed by a woman and the woman spirit remained. This was the first I really heard of Winkte people and through this production I actually got to meet Winkte people and hear their perspective. It was really great to learn about it because there are so many Indians in this world who live in different walks of life and as an Indian person, I was really fascinated by what they had to say."
Prior to the start of production, Akhavan and Moretz met with several young people who had been to Christian gay conversion therapy centers. "These kids were so brave to share their stories with us. They told us some of the darkest things that happened to them there," remembers Moretz. "Desi and I wanted to know if the interpersonal relationships that develop in our film reflected what happens in the center. There was a consensus that yes, there were some people that they connected to and some people that they did not connect to at all. That was very important and informative. I don't think I could have been able to execute the character in the way that I did without all the information that we got."
The Miseducation Of Cameron Post began production in October 2016 and shot for 23 days at a resort called Reidlbauer's in Saugerties, New York. The majority of the cast and crew lived at the resort for the duration of the shoot.
Akhavan collaborated with director of photography Ashley Connor to develop the look of the film. "We wanted to incorporate a lot of natural lighting. We looked at Nan Goldin photography, we looked at Lynne Ramsay films. Todd Haynes' SAFE inspired me a lot. I watched it for the first time before writing the final draft of the script and it influenced a couple of scenes and the shots that we stole. It resonated because Julianne Moore's character is living at a center, feeling like something's wrong with her but not sure what's wrong with her."
In The Miseducation Of Cameron Post, of course, it's sex that lands Cameron and her fellow teens at the treatment center. It was important to all involved that the sex scenes feel authentic and true to teenage discovery. Cameron and Coley's backseat sex on prom night was the first of those scenes to shot. In allowing Moretz and Shephard the freedom to work out that first scene together, Akhavan set the tone for later scenes. "Chlöe, Quinn and I had spoken through the beats, we knew what they had to do, we knew the scene and we knew at what point they'd be interrupted," recalls the director. "I gave them no notes. I put them in the back seat of the car and gave them about 20 minutes to rehearse on their own and to decide how they wanted to do it. When we filmed, it was just Ashley with the camera and the two girls. And they went for it. That's how I worked moving forward with Chlöe. It was just have a discussion, be on the same page and then get out of her way and give her the space to do what she does."
Moretz and Shephard were committed to make their characters' love and desire palpable. Says Moretz, "Quinn is really sweet girl and great actor, as a filmmaker herself. She and I just dove in, trying to make those moments as heartwarming and beautiful as first love should feel, as your first kiss should feel. All of us wanted those scenes to be as beautiful and touching and also sexy and sensual and poetic as the heterosexual relationships that have been depicted on film for years. It's a love story and we wanted the viewer to feel why Cameron is so heartbroken."
The film was still in production when the 2016 presidential election took place. The following day, the shell-shocked cast and crew returned to work, knowing the film had acquired an unwelcome new relevance. Akhavan spoke her feelings to the group. "I told them, 'I'd rather spend this day with you. I'd rather spend this day making a film that's a response to this climate. Yes, it's horrible and it's shitty and we're making something. I'd always rather be making something."
Recalls Lane, "That was such a tough day. But at the same time, to know that we were creating something that means something, that has to do with what's actually going on in the world today - it was really incredible. And that you get to work with all these wonderful, talented people who believe in it just as much as you do … it's something that you hold close to you."
The Miseducation Of Cameron Post
Release Date: September 6th, 2018