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fame game

Don’t be fooled by the new film The Miseducation of Cameron Post. On the surface, it might seem like a drama about a gay teenager (Chloe Grace Moretz) in 1993 who undergoes enforced conversion therapy at a religious camp called God’s Promise. But at heart, its co-writer and director Desiree Akhavan said in a phone interview this week, it’s a John Hughes movie.

“It’s a metaphor for being a teenager,” says Akhavan, whose voice conveys a wry hipness. “Being a teenager is feeling disgusted with yourself. No matter who you are – gay, straight, any ethnicity – when you hit those teen years, you feel you’re diseased. Whatever it is about you that is different from everyone around you, that’s your disease. Everyone feels it, and if they’re not getting it from their parents, they’re getting it from their classmates, the television they watch, the internet. Whatever they are is the thing that’s wrong. It’s a narrative we all create for ourselves. I’ve spent a lot of my adult life trying to exorcise myself of that bias against my own everything.”

Akhavan, who grew up in 1980s Brooklyn, New York, with traditional Iranian parents who immigrated to the United States via Paris after the revolution, is familiar with feelings of otherness. (She identifies as bisexual, as well as “really weird.”) After studying film at Smith College, she created and starred in the sardonic web series The Slope, whose tagline is, “Superficial, homophobic lesbians.” (“You look so heteronormative,” one character greets another, snidely. “Have you had an abortion yet?”)

In 2012, Akhavan fell for Emily Danforth’s novel The Miseducation of Cameron Post, “but I knew it was too ambitious to be my first film,” she says. “Everything about it felt sophisticated, subtle. The dance between the tragedy and the comedy is so delicate. It’s a funny book, but the stakes are incredibly high. And 80 per cent of the work I’d done was fart jokes.”

Instead, she made Appropriate Behavior, an end-of-rom-com about a Persian-American bisexual Brooklynite (Akhavan) floundering in the aftermath of a breakup, which she swears is less autobiographical than it sounds. That film landed her a three-episode arc on Girls, playing a writing student. “Lena Dunham was an incredible head of that ship,” Akhavan says. “She was calm, she took her time. She was wearing a lot of different hats. But she was one of the most present people I’ve ever met.”

Eventually, Akhavan wrote Danforth a fan letter, Danforth wrote back, they hung out a few times, and Akhavan secured the rights to Cameron Post. The novel starts when Cameron is 11 and follows her for 500 pages; Akhavan and her co-writer, Cecilia Frugiuele, focused their script on the last 200 pages, the conversion camp. Each had her own in to the story: Frugiuele was taught by nuns in Catholic schools; and though Akhavan’s family accepts her for who she is, she understands what it is to come from a traditional background. They researched “ex-gays” who advocate for conversion therapy, and met with people who’d undergone it and come out the other side.

But the film doesn’t vilify conversion advocates; that would be too simplistic. “It’s hard not to empathize with them, because they make an entire life for themselves out of denying the essence of who they are,”Akhavan says. In fact, she cast one of her favourite actors, Jennifer Ehle, as the camp’s head doctor.

“I grew up watching [the 1995 PBS miniseries] Pride and Prejudice once a year, every year with my aunts,” Akhavan says. “To me, Jennifer is Lizzy Bennet. I love her. When she agreed to do the part, I thought, ‘How fantastic to watch the calmest, most beautiful, patient figure be completely terrifying.’ I love casting against type. Tom Cruise in Magnolia is one of my favorite casting choices. I think it’s really exciting to see people go against their persona.”

Her lead, Moretz, came to her: “Chloe had just backed out of a bunch of studio projects she’d been attached to, and her team were looking for scripts,” Akhavan says. “She wanted to take her career in a new direction, to make work that reflected her personality and politics.”

Cameron Post’s politics became more relevant the day Donald Trump was elected, which occurred in the middle of the shoot. “All of us were completely distraught,” Akhavan says. “I had to learn to work through a broken heart. It was an incredible experience, to be making something that was a direct response to the administration we were about to get.”

She hopes that people, no matter what they’re going through, will feel a little less alone after watching the film. “I made it for my teenage self,” she says. “It took decades to cleanse myself of the b.s. that I was swallowing as a teenager. I hope people leave with an understanding that it is b.s., and that you get to determine for yourself what’s right and what’s wrong.”

Just before we hang up, I ask Akhavan for one example of her teenage self-loathing. “It was endless things!” she answers. “I’m sure anyone could point to 80 things about yourself where you’re like, ‘Okay, if I just change these 80 things, I’ll be fine.’”

Special to The Globe and Mail

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