What most strikes anyone watching “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” is its abrupt moments of humor, given the film’s melancholy subject matter.
“I didn’t want this movie, just because it happened to be about gay conversion therapy, to feel like taking your medicine,” said Desiree Akhavan, the film’s director, co-screenwriter and executive producer, in an interview with The Daily Californian.
It doesn’t. The film’s titular character, played with career-defining grace by Chloë Grace Moretz, feels undeniably real — she’s a 16-year-old lesbian sent to a gay conversion camp called God’s Promise. There, she’s de facto told to hate herself for her sexuality. But while it might not be the slapstick conversion-camp comedy of “But I’m a Cheerleader” — its characters don’t have to engage in exaggerated, color-coded gender role simulations, after all — it has its brilliantly constructed scenes of levity.
These moments feel earned. Much of the film is intentionally uncomfortable, from the messages preached by those who run the camp to the undeniable humanity with which Akhavan imbues in them.
Akhavan’s refusal to caricaturize any character or aspect of the conversion camp comes across even in one of the film’s most laughable scenes — when Cameron and her roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs from the original Broadway cast of “Fun Home”) dance to the outright ridiculous “Blessercise,” a Christian workout tape that appears straight out of the televised evangelical revival of the 1980s.
“I didn’t want anyone to think that Christians were the butt of the joke in the movie,” Akhavan said of her decision to use the tape — which is 100 percent real — rather than recreate it to match the one in the eponymous novel by Emily M. Danforth. Every decision to even slightly stray from the source material was given extensive forethought by Akhavan, due in part to her immense love of the novel.
“It was the most honest depiction I’d ever read of being a teenager,” Akhavan said.
One of the most minor of these alterations was a song change — set in a moment when the queer teens sing while cleaning dishes — from the the cutesy “Oh Happy Day” to the queer-led 4 Non Blondes’ perennial bop “What’s Up.” The song was meant to “sex that up” and to allow for a more true-to-form lyrical correspondence, according to Akhavan. The characters themselves may not know what’s going on, but in that moment, everything feels like it might be OK.
On the larger end, the book takes place over three stages of Cameron’s life, beginning when she’s 12, its middle set in high school and its third section at God’s Promise. The film, however, cuts to the chase, beginning not long before the incident that causes Cameron to be sent to the camp. While Akhavan always knew she wanted to focus upon Cameron’s later teen years, the film was originally much longer: Its initial cut reached two and a half hours.
“When we put the film together, my editor Sara Shaw and I thought everyone who was watching felt like, ‘Ah, let’s get to God’s Promise already. Enough foreplay,’ ” Akhavan said.
This first hour was then recut into the film’s flashback scenes, which provide Hayley Kiyoko-esque romantic interludes to the melancholy atmosphere of the camp. The audience watches Cameron as she appears as more of a husk than a real person in group therapy settings, and then abruptly sees her make out with her secret girlfriend Coley (Quinn Shephard) at home. In one scene, this occurs as the two watch “Desert Hearts” — the filmmakers couldn’t get the rights to “The Hunger,” the queer movie the pair watch in the book.
“ ‘Desert Hearts’ is a gay classic, and it was my second choice. … I’m so grateful because it’s so many people’s first gay film,” Akhavan said. She shared that her own was “High Art.”
But as for her inspirations for the film, Akhavan’s most major influences were, unexpectedly, the decidedly un-queer films of John Hughes. While she noted their questionable politics, she also cited an undying love for “The Breakfast Club,” “Pretty in Pink” and “Sixteen Candles.”
“Those are the movies that spoke to me growing up. I mean, of course, nothing spoke literally to me — I was a child of immigrants and, you know, a total loser. So no film I watched ever spoke to me or spoke to the experience of being queer. But those spoke to me in a big way because they were honest. They were intelligent,” Akhavan said.
With a cast comprised of multiple actors of color and queer actors, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” seeks to provide that experience for a new generation. There’s a chance that, like “High Art” or “Desert Hearts,” the film might be the first queer film younger queer audiences watch, a revelation that’s not lost on Akhavan.
“I hope that people are able to watch this film and feel less alone,” Akhavan said.
“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” is now playing at Shattuck Cinemas.