Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present, and future.
Desiree Akhavan didn’t set out to make a message movie with “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.” Her second feature stars Chloe Grace Moretz as the eponymous teenage Cameron, who is shunted off to gay conversion camp after she’s caught in flagrante with her best friend. For the filmmaker behind the disarmingly honest “Appropriate Behavior,” the film offered the chance to put a different spin on the stories she likes to tell.
“I didn’t make this film to draw attention to gay conversion therapy, but I am happy it’s doing that,” Akhavan said. “It wasn’t my agenda going into it but I think the film will touch different people on different levels. … To me, it was a metaphor for something anyone could relate to, which is the minute you become a teenager, gay, straight, whatever ethnicity, you feel diseased, like something’s deeply wrong with you. It was just like a perfect vehicle for a teen comedy in the vein of John Hughes.”
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Although the film debuted at Sundance 2018 and went on to win the Grand Jury Prize, it wasn’t exactly received as a 21st-century riff on the teen sex comedy. Audiences and critics loved it; the film currently has an 82% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and when FilmRise opened it last week in just two theaters, it pulled in an impressive $26,500 per theater average. However, many reviews cast it as a “gay conversion drama” or a “queer film,” full stop.
For Akhavan, who used her own experiences as a bisexual woman to frame a funny, honest story about sexual coming-of-age in “Appropriate Behavior,” it’s indicative of how narrow-minded some people can be.
“I think it’s absurd that people are like, ‘Oh, you basically just remade “But I’m a Cheerleader,”‘” Akhavan said. “That’s kind of a fucked-up statement. That’s to say that a queer film has no agency, it’s just simply ‘queer,’ and there’s no other singular factor to it. Just queer. It’s like, ‘We’re in a post-“Brokeback Mountain” world. We already have the gay film! Don’t you remember ‘Brokeback Mountain’? We’re done!'”
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Akhavan has a theory as to why there’s not much space for films like “Cameron Post,” and it places the blame with the business of making movies. “I don’t think anyone’s monetizing stories of queer women,” she said. “As someone who makes stories about marginalized people, I don’t feel like anyone’s putting their money there. I just think the American film industry is spineless and everyone’s so afraid.”
Despite the movie’s solid first-week reception, it will only be available in the States via a limited release. That’s not the case elsewhere — the movie opens in wide release in the UK and France. “I’ve been thinking a lot about why that is and what the factors are,” she said. “I actually think it’s just the very simple thing of being a story about female sexuality. I don’t even think it’s being gay. I think it’s just about a woman’s sexuality.”
Despite the big Grand Jury Prize win, it took two months before FilmRise acquired the the film. “That’s what solidified my growing suspicion that there isn’t a place in this country for the kinds of films that I care about, and those are films that deal very frankly with this female sexuality,” Akhavan said. “I think this is the obstacle in this country, that female sexuality is super taboo. I think that’s reflected really well in our ratings system.”
Akhavan has no problem walking away from those narrow parameters. After the critical success of “Appropriate Behavior,” Akhavan began to field Hollywood offers, though none excited her. She wanted to make another personal project, a television series called “The Bisexual.” No one in Hollywood wanted it, so Akhavan took her pitch to London, where Channel 4 and Hulu snapped it up. It’s set to debut this fall.
While the protracted selling process and limited release sting, Akhavan did come out of Sundance with a stronger sense of the power of her work. “I will say that the best thing about winning Grand Jury prize was my entitlement,” Akhavan said. “It lit this fire under my ass. It made me feel entitled. … I wanna make films you can’t help but avoid, that have a really strong message, that are well-crafted, and that people love to go see.”
She cited some advice from her writing and producing partner, Cecilia Frugiuele: “If you told me that you could pick one of these three boxes and one is audiences love it and we make a shit-ton of money, the other is critics love it we win a big award, or you and I love it everyone hates it and nobody sees it, I would always choose you and I love it.”
For Akhavan, “That’s sort of our ethos with everything, if we can look at each other and be like, ‘Fuck yeah, it’s a good film!,’ then we’re good. That’s how we feel about this film and I can’t change that. That’s the best. I love this movie, I’m so proud of it, and that keeps me golden.”
FilmRise is expanding “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” into new cities, including Los Angeles, today.