Desiree Akhavan treads where many wouldn’t dare. That was clear from the opening scene of the Iranian-American director and actress’s taboo-busting first film, Appropriate Behavior, in which her character rescues an ex-girlfriend’s strap-on from the trash.
Its follow-up, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, is set in a gay conversion therapy camp, but finds space for empathy, humor, and light within its toxic environment. “People feel this pressure that anything about a marginalized group must be like taking your medicine,” says the New York native, stabbing her fork into a piece of cake on a blissful spring day in her adopted home of east London. “But I don’t want to be punished, and I want the work I make to pull you in… and seduce you a bit.”
The movie, which won the Sundance Dramatic Grand Jury Prize in January, is based on Emily M. Danforth’s 2012 YA novel, and takes place in 1993. After getting caught, panties-down, in the backseat of a car with a girl on prom night, Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) is shipped off to a rehab center, where cozy Bible study groups and arts-and-crafts sessions mask the fact that its counselors are preaching a gospel of self-hatred. Cameron soon bonds with two of the more rebellious teens “in treatment”: a plucky girl named Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and the wry Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck). Together, they sneak into the woods to devour contraband candy that Jane stores in her prosthetic leg.
With Akhavan’s eye for eccentric details and gift for one-liners, the film, at times, feels like a darker sibling of the 2000 conversion-camp comedy But I’m a Cheerleader. (“You can’t get a pass from God to jerk off!” one camp-goer screams at another.) Moretz embodies Cameron’s inner turmoil with the subtle inscrutability of arthouse-phase Kristen Stewart. “I wanted Cameron to be [played by] someone you wouldn’t expect,” says Akhavan, who is bisexual. “Chloe is a pretty princess who’s always playing the ingenue. You wouldn’t look at her and think, Dyke. But what if you see her in this completely different world? And see her fucking?”
Dress by Adeam.
Moretz was totally game for the role. “I had taken a break in my career to reassess what I wanted to do,” she says. “As actors, we need to be putting out movies that change people’s perspectives.” Gay conversion therapy is far from a historical footnote: Mike Pence has endorsed it, and it’s legal in 37 states. “This is a reality for a lot of people.”
In 2016, before shooting began in upstate New York, Akhavan and Moretz visited survivors of conversion camps. The story of Mathew Shurka, a half-Iranian Jewish man who was sent to therapy in New York as a teen, sank its claws deep into Akhavan. “It was really intense to hear something so close to home,” she says. “I felt really isolated in my own coming-out journey.”
Akhavan grew up in Palisades, a 90-minute bus ride from her school in the Bronx. As a kid she aspired to become a playwright, and nurtured a Chekhov obsession. She was bullied relentlessly. “I was voted the ugliest at my school,” she says. “I was very unhappy and a loner for years, but I think it built a lot of my identity. I developed a voice, and a bullshit detector I’m very proud of.” She came out to her parents in her early 20s.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” she says, suddenly looking downcast. “We were so traditional. They were like, ‘If you could choose, why would you choose to make us so unhappy?’ ” She now brings those personal conflicts into her work. Appropriate Behavior’s lead character, Shirin, wrestles with reconciling her Iranian heritage with her queerness; Akhavan’s next project, the raunchy TV comedy The Bisexual, is, in part, a corrective to the lack of representation — and myths surrounding — bi people.
Her art and life poignantly align in Cameron Post, too. In one jubilant scene, Moretz abandons her camp chores to clamber onto a countertop and belt out the 4 Non Blondes song “What’s Up?,” a galvanizing ’90s anthem for a dismal world; her peers quickly join her. The scene was filmed the day Trump’s presidency was announced, and many of the cast and crew were in tears.
Akhavan recalls thinking she had two options: “I could cry, or I could actively say ‘Fuck you’ to the administration,” she says. “I just felt, Bring it on.”
The Miseducation of Cameron Post hits theaters on August 3.
Photography by Yuval Hen
Styling by Kay Korsh
Hair by Ben Talbott
Makeup by Elaine Lynskey
Styling Assistant: Martynas Stirneckas
(First Outfit: Shirt by Basic Rights. Pants by Scotch & Soda)