When I hopped on the phone with The Miseducation of Cameron Post director Desiree Akhavan after I saw the movie on opening weekend, we both stopped each other in our tracks. I startled her when I told her I’d grown up in an evangelical Christian world almost identical to the one portrayed in her film; and she startled me when she told me nothing had changed about her approach to the movie during the 2016 election. Then we both said, “Of course.” Of course I, a lesbian teen suffocating in the closet with absolutely no pop culture representation to show me the way, would grow up and become a professional queer TV and film critic. And of course she, a second generation Iranian-American immigrant whose parents moved to New York following the Iranian revolution, wouldn’t have needed the rise of Trumpism to convince her a film about the politics of evangelical Christianity is still relevant.
There’s something special about being a queer critic talking to a queer filmmaker — and vice-versa, I suppose. There are lots of of courses. And these conversations are rare. Most queer films, especially the ones that succeed in the mainstream, are written and directed and produced and edited by men. And the same goes for queer film criticism: men, men, men.
“It’s weird when you release a film and read reviews by a bunch of older dudes who are like, ‘I don’t get it.'” Akhavan tells me.
“Right,” I say.
“Right,” she says.
“Because it’s not for them,” we say in unison.
The feeling I get when I’m talking to Desiree Akhavan is the feeling I got when I was watching Cameron Post: that I can relax because she gets it, that I don’t need to explain myself or be on guard, that we’re speaking the same language rooted in shared queer pop culture experiences (or lack thereof). It’s nice because it’s uncommon, but it’s also nice because pop culture is how Cam relates to the world, too.
When we’re discussing some of the more baffling reviews Cameron Post received, I tell her she’s somehow managed to miss out on the go-to men usually lean on when they’re writing about queer women’s films — comparing them to Blue Is the Warmest Color. She laughs, and then groans. “It’s probably because I am on record about how much I hate the sex in that movie!”
I assure her every queer woman hates the sex in that movie. She’s pleased, but not as pleased as when I tell her how authentic the sex in Cameron Post is. It’s the first time I’ve forgotten to feel weird watching women have sex with each other in a movie theater with men, probably because nothing about the way the sex is filmed is for men.
“Good,” Akhavan says. “I want to prove that money can be made off of women’s sexual stories. It’s not just a queer thing. It’s about women receiving pleasure, and giving pleasure. It’s still completely taboo.”
It’s not queer desire that’s still taboo. It’s queer women’s desire. “The Guardian just did this piece about how there are so many films like Call Me By Your Name and Love, Simon that get these big releases,” she says. “Why aren’t we seeing queer women’s stories being backed and celebrated in the same way?”
Because our culture is terrified of women’s sexuality, we both say. Of course, we both say.
She laughs. “But I believe if we stick it out, we can prove money can be made off of women’s desires for each other.”
So far she’s right. Even though it took two months for Cameron Post to find a distributor after it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year — something Akhavan drily calls “surprising” — the film has exceeded expectations at the box office. It had the highest per screen average of indie films when it opened at two theaters in New York City, will land on 73 screens this weekend, and is ultimately eyeing 250 screens for its full run.
“That’s such a clear example of an audience’s engagement determining the future of a film,” Akhavan says, “If our opening weekend was low, that wouldn’t have happened. But people showed that there was an audience and a demand out there. You can go online and request a film. The actions audiences take have a tangible result. If this movie does well, it won’t be as hard for the next woman to make her movie.”
I’m always glad to talk about queer sex on-screen with another queer woman, but my favorite part of Cameron Post was how it treated the queer kids at God’s Promise. It didn’t make them into the butt of any jokes. Yes, the movie is funny (very, very funny), and at times rightly scathing in its critique of evangelical Christianity, but the queer teens themselves are treated with so much respect. Which was, of course, on purpose.
“These supporting characters can be hilarious in some ways, but we wanted each of them to have a full story. We did a pass of the script from each perspective,” Akhavan tells me. “It’s about giving dignity to all of your characters. We held with Helen singing karaoke for a good long time, for example, because I wanted to show how serious she is about it. When she prays before she sings, it seems funny, but when we hold on her, it’s like, ‘Oh, she prays because she cares.’ It’s not a joke.”
After watching The Miseducation of Cameron Post and talking at length with the woman who played the biggest role in adapting it to the big screen, that’s my main takeaway: that she knows what it’s like to care. Akhavan made this movie because she cared deeply about Emily Danforth’s book. She makes movies, in general, because she cares about the art of filmmaking. She makes queer movies because she cares about queer women.
When I have the occasional good fortune to talk to a queer filmmaker, they usually tell me they don’t want to be pigeonholed as a queer filmmaker. Desiree Akhavan doesn’t tell me that. She tells me she didn’t set out to be a queer filmmaker, but “you follow what you love.”
The Cameron Post of Danforth’s novel would like that answer, a lot. “I just liked girls,” she says when she’s figuring it all out, “because I couldn’t help not to.”