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The Miseducation of Cameron Post Review and Interviews: Real Life Horror with a Splash of John Hughes

The Miseducation of Cameron Post, a film based on the 2012 novel of the same name by Emily Danforth, is directed and co-written by queer American-Iranian filmmaker Desiree Akhavan.  This Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning indie tells a story that takes place in 1993 chronicling the misadventures of Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz), a teen placed in a gay conversion camp called “God’s Promise” by her born-again Christian extended family, with the hopes of curing her of SSA, or “same sex attraction”.

Cameron is caught getting hot and heavy in the back seat of a car with her first love and prom queen Coley Taylor (Quinn Shepard) and gets whisked away to a camp.  There she and fellow campers are guided by therapist Dr. Lydia March (Jennifer Ehle) and advised by her brother, Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr), who believes he’s been cured of the sin of same sex attraction.  Cameron finds like-minds in fellow campers, or inmates depending on the perspective.  Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck) are just playing the game of getting through the experience so they can continue with their lives. She starts sneaking into the woods to smoke joints and figure out ways to seem believably changed and contrite for what none of them believe is wrong.  It’s like she’s found her soulmates.

What makes The Miseducation of Cameron Post, or TMOCP, so powerful? They found the perfect actress to play the lead with Chloe Grace Moretz.  At only 20 she is a veteran of the film industry, and Akhavan was lucky Moretz was actively looking for work with deeper meaning and more social resonance.  The actress has a genius for conveying emotion without speech, and Cameron as a character is an observer, and considers her place, though she knows she isn’t sinful, in a world where being gay is often seen as wrong. Akhavan said she had almost given up the project for fear of never finding their Cameron, until one day she got a Post-It that said “Cameron wants to meet”.  She now has the Post-It framed on her wall.

The co-stars are all beautifully cast, so much so that the film really feels like an ensemble piece.  Even those who don’t have as much screen time, like Ehle as the staunch Christian who believes she is doing god’s work realigning these kids to their Christian path, make an indelible mark on the story’s authenticity.  Gallagher’s Reverend Rick has more interaction with his charges shown on film, and his is a heartbreaking portrayal of vacillating commitment and confusion.  As Jane and Adam, Lane and Goodluck allow the audience to lean into the relief of found tribe, which is an aspect of the story that lifts an otherwise dark story with moments of sweetness and shared teen struggle reminiscent of 80s era John Hughes.

I spoke to both Chloe Grace Moretz and Desiree Akhavan about found tribe, their own experience of it, and how it influenced their experience of making The Miseducation of Cameron Post.

Said Akhavan, “It was always one of the main stories of the film, but I also think it’s heightened in the queer community.  I also felt that it’s in every teen film. You find your allies, and that’s one of the best things about getting older. You start to speak the same language with people. You stop trying to imitate, It happens at different ages for everyone. For me, it didn’t happen until I was 21. You stop regurgitating what you see around you, and you start imitating what you aspire to be. I discovered it for myself when I met Cecilia, the co-writer and producer of this film. We met at around 20 or 21, and we just spoke the same language. There was no effort. She believed in me, and I believed in her. We enabled each other to make our first films, first shorts, first features, and now TMOCP. It was just…someone sees me, and I know she felt the same way about seeing her. It was just the best…I mean, I wouldn’t be making movies if it weren’t for her. I wouldn’t be anything. Like, she’s my life partner, not romantically, but as a creator. She enables me and I enable her. Meeting her completely changed my life. I moved to London to be close to her and write this film. Her belief in me gave me belief in myself.

Her telling me, you know this is really early on and before I came out to my family. She drowned out the crazy in my head. She drowned out the voices that were like, “You should hang yourself!” And she was like, “No! You’re cool! It’s really cool that you’re queer! It’s really cool that you’re this thing that you have a lot of shame about. It’s so cool that you’re Iranian, tell me about your culture. Talk about where you’re from.” And so now I write to make her laugh. And that relationship is the thing that enabled and allowed my adult life to begin. That was one of the things that, when we were writing this, was so important to us.”

Moretz had her own experience with found tribe, which was in part informed by having two of her four brothers come out as gay.  “I think I was really lucky that the family I grew up in was really wonderful, but that changed. You are born with people that are supposed to be your family. And, you either choose to grow up into adults who are also friends, or you just stay family members who only see each other at functions. I remember there was a massive choice that happened, and it came through honesty. You know, there’s a lot of things you hide from your siblings, there was a big turning point, when I was 19, where I came clean with a lot of things in my life to my family. And through that and through my mother, I think when my father left when I was 13, things kind of compacted themselves and everyone became real quiet. You just don’t want to add fuel to a fire, and you kinda separate a little bit. There was a big shift when I was like, “I can’t do it anymore. I gotta talk to everyone. I gotta talk. We’re not talking, we’re just existing around each other.” And we chose to be honest with each other, and through that, we chose to be a tribe, we chose to be friends. And they’re my best friends that I choose above anyone that I know. Like, the first people I want to go to dinner with, or go to a concert, or something simple, or just call when something happens,  is them. Not just because we were born together, but because we choose to be there for each other at another level.”

One of the frightening aspects of the film is the truthful way it portrays gay conversion.  There are only 12 states in the US that have outlawed therapy for what is called “same sex attraction”, a therapy which denies biology, research, and to this day uses techniques that leverage shame, guilt, and fear to warp the minds of LGBTQIA kids and adults.  The statistics are terrifying,  especially as they relate to the longterm damage done to those who have gone through it.  Both depression and even suicide are common by-products.  Mathew Shurka,  of #BornPerfect, the National Center for Lesbian Rights Campaign to end conversion therapy, was subjected to gay conversion therapy before he started working to end it.  When I asked him one of the tactics he most remembers that he saw reflected in the film, he said, “Lydia’s character says, “Would you give a drug addict a parade?” And I remember specifically in conversion therapy how we were taught the ridiculousness of us celebrating pride. I had never celebrated pride, yet, I went into conversion therapy at 16, so I hadn’t had a pride celebration event yet. But, you know, I can’t avoid it. I’d hear about pride celebrations, I hear about gay people in pop culture. This was in 2004 at the time, so it wasn’t as visible as it is today. They would come up in conversation with the therapist, and it was always talked about as, “You’re basically not well and you’re celebrating that and you’re fighting for the rights it. It’s like their comparison was sick people were fighting for the right to be sick.” And it’s like, “Do you want to be a part of that or do you want to live,” what they called, “a healthy life? To have healthy relationships in a healthy life.” And at 16, of course I want to live a healthy life. 

The best aspect of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, is the balance director Akhavan finds between telling what is essentially a horror story of mistreatment and manipulation, and a charming, hopeful tale of coming of age. Audiences will see these kids embracing like-minded people as a support and a safe place from which to approach their futures. If anyone needs another answer as to why we need more diverse voices making films, here it is. 

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Half the Picture Documentary Review: The Struggle and Commitment of Female Filmmakers Beautifully Revealed

Documentarian Amy Adrion has created what amounts to a love letter to female filmmakers in her new film, Half the Picture, which supporters of women in film will love to know is now available on demand*.

I was at San Diego Comic-Con last week preparing for and conducting the panel Women Rocking Hollywood, that features women in film. After I would tell people what I do at the convention, I would ask film fans if they could name five female filmmakers.  Almost all were at a loss.

In the 90 year history of the Oscars, there have been 442 nominees in the directing category.  Only 5 have been women, and only 1 woman has won.  Did you know women now make up 51% of the audience at movie theaters?  Women outnumber men in box office numbers. To say they are decidedly underserved is an understatement.

Those of us in the trenches, the female film critics, the agents of female filmmakers and crew, the publicists of women in film, all know the startling, depressing statistics , and know they aren’t changing nearly fast enough.  If you want to know how truly problematic the disparity between men and women directing studio films in 2018 and the foreseeable future is, click here for some sobering numbers.

What Amy Adrion’s film does is gives airtime and a platform for some of the most talented, experienced, and often frustrated women working inside Hollywood and outside of it in independent film.  Don’t think, though, that the film is filled with women complaining.  It isn’t.  It really feels, as one watches it, like a celebration, or, for those don’t know who these women are, an introduction.  These fearless ladies are so passionate and so committed to their art, they repeatedly find a way to make it work, even under the most difficult circumstances.

As part of the film, we hear from a wide variety female film luminaries, including Ava DuVernay, **Catherine Hardwicke, **Gina Prince-Bythewood, Brenda Chapman, **Patricia Riggen, Jill Soloway, Miranda July, **Patricia Cardoso,  Martha Coolidge, Lesli Linka Glatter, Karyn Kusama, **Tina Mabry, Penelope Spheeris, and **Kirsten Schaffer, to name a few. All have created enduring, powerful, successful works on film, or are advocates committed to raising awareness and making lasting change in the industry. Sometimes their interviews are inspiring, sometimes heartbreaking, but they are always heartfelt and enlightening. None of these women shy away from expressing the difficulties and struggles inherent to their craft.  They bluntly speak of their challenges, while explaining why they keep at it, despite them.  It’s a testament to Adrion, who is often seen on camera, that she creates a safe space for these artists to speak their truth.

It’s also lovely to see, (if, as I’ve repeatedly suggested, you look on IMDB to confirm there are female members of the crew) and see the room in which they are filming these exceptional talents is filled with women.  There are female producers, directors of photography, composers, a female editor, and camera operators…even the titles are created by a female graphic artist.

I’ve repeatedly suggested supporters of equality for women in film look on IMDB to confirm there are some female members of the crew before committing to seeing a film in the theater. It’s lovely to see the rooms in which they film their interviews is filled with female crew. Half the Picture has female producers, directors of photography, composers, a female editor, and camera operators…even the titles are created by a female graphic artist.

Director Adrion choses to do a lot of interviews without fuss.  For viewers looking for thrills and glitz, or who aren’t particularly interested in the subject, it might not have enough tricks, bells, or whistles.  That, I think, was part of her method.  She gets out of the way, and lets the women speak for themselves. It has proven to have been a good choice, as in its initial release Half the Picture has been very well received.

I asked Adrion what her experience has been since she released the film:

“I’ve been humbled by the reception to Half the Picture.  After every single screening I’ve had women, and some men, come up to me and say, “I have this script, I have this documentary, I have this short film that I want to make and NOW I’m going to make it.”  They say that this film has given them the spark they needed to know that yes, it’s hard, but it’s not impossible. I’ve also had top festival programmers, agents and producers watch the film and tell me that it’s made them change the way they approach doing business.  That’s all I could have hoped for – people in the business actually modifying their approach based on what they’ve seen in the film, and creative people in the audience being inspired to make their own work.  That’s it, that’s the future, that’s everything.”

One of the panelists on Women Rocking Hollywood said she’d recently seen Half the Picture, and she found herself moved to tears, so relieved was she to hear she wasn’t alone in her experience.  I love that there’s a film that celebrates the work she and her sisters in film are doing,  and that we can hear them speak candidly about the challenges they face, which are both real and unacceptable.

For those who have committed to supporting women in film, this movie reaffirms why they have done so.  For movie lovers who wonder what all the parity and inclusion rider fuss is all about, it is an eye-opening, sobering look into an industry that needs a complete overhaul.

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*Available on iTunes

**These women have been on my Women Rocking Hollywood panel at San Diego Comic-Con.

Night Comes On Review: A gorgeous study in loss and sisterhood

This weekend you can see the new release Night Comes On on demand.  The directorial debut of actress/writer/director Jordana Spiro (of the show Ozarks) is co-written by The Shade Room’s  Angelica Nwandu partly based on the experiences of Nwandu’s childhood. It would never had come to fruition without the Sundance Institute’s Directors Lab and other grants, showing once again the importance of supporting women in film working in the indie space.

The story centers on Angel LaMere (Dominique Fishback), who is released from juvenile detention just before her 18th birthday.  Angel’s life hasn’t been easy. She’s been the victim of sexual and domestic violence.  She and her 10 year old sister Abigail (Tatum Marylin Hall) have been raised in a life of poverty, and when Angel gets out, Abigail is in foster care.  Their father is responsible for the death of their mother, and Angel wants to exact revenge.

She embarks on a journey with her 10-year-old sister Abigail (Tatum Marylin Hall) that may lead to a disastrous, life-ruining act of revenge, or to self-discovery and redemption, acceptance of loss, and the embrace of comfort.  It’s a coming-of-age story reminiscent of Moonlight, even going so far as to represent the queerness of the lead character, and her struggle with a disintegrating love relationship.

There is an authenticity of feeling, and a sweetness between sisters that will create an impact lasting far beyond the film’s running time.  Whether audiences personally identify with the struggles these girls endure matters less than the fact that almost everyone can relate to a depth of love and feeling between family members, either chosen or biogical, as well as the need to identify and accept the difference between who we are and who we want to become, at any age.

Dominique Fishback is hot as blazes right now, with this film being so critically acclaimed but also as a co-star in the soon-to-be released highly publicized drama The Hate You Give.  She ably carries the film, showing sensitivity, ferocity, and nuance that will hold her in good stead regardless of the character she portrays.  Moreover, it is essential to making the audience so connected to Angel, her relationships, and her journey. There is a pervasive sense of both melancholy and hope to the film, and to both Fishback and newcomer Hall’s performances, and the suffering and loss their characters have in common, though expressed differently, is always at the root of their connection. Together, they create a story that is haunting, and gorgeous.  They leave an indelible stamp in the memories of all who watch their scenes together.

With Night Comes On, we are reminded that films with strong female characters, especially women of color, interacting with other women in a multidimensional way, are few and far between.  Also those who care about supporting women in film should note that there is a strong diversity of intersectional representation in not only the cast, but also the crew of the film.

In a summer of explosive blockbusters, there is a welcome modesty to Night Comes On.  It isn’t bluster, but truthful characterization that is at the foundation of this beautifully constructed, intimate story.  That suggests the sort of considered touch by new director Spiro that portents a great future for her behind the camera.  Here’s hoping both she and co-screenwriter Nwandu get a chance to prove themselves again soon.

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A Wrinkle in Time Movie Review: So Centered in Joy, Cynics Need Not Apply

Sparkle alert!  If you’ve seen any of the trailers for the highly-publicized cinematic rendering of Madeline L’Engle’s classic 1962 children’s novel A Wrinkle in Time, you know sparkle figures prominently. Director Ava DuVernay, who has the distinction of being the first women of color to direct of live action film with a budget over 100 million dollars, wanted to celebrate a story she saw as suffused with the joy, innocence, and optimism of childhood.  For children from around ten years of age through to children at heart in their nineties, it is a cinematic delight, but cynics and pessimists need not apply.  This sparkle is not for you.

Middle school student Meg Murry (Storm Reid) struggles with self esteem issues, as does every typical tween.  Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Murry (Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are famous physicists who are researching theories in intergalactic travel. After Mr. Murray, who has discovered something he calls tessering, which is a wrinkle in time that allows for inter-dimensional travel, disappears and has been gone for four years, Meg, her classmate Calvin (Levi Miller) and her genius little brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), commit to a journey through the cosmos to find him.  They are aided by three celestial wise women.

The celestial guides, as in the book, are a manifestation of the triple goddess of maiden, mother, and crone, and give the film its strong spiritual underpinning. Reese Witherspoon’s Mrs. Whatsit, Mindy Kaling’s Mrs. Who, and Oprah Winfrey’s Mrs. Which serve respectively as each archetype.  They bring wisdom and comfort to the children as they travel through time and space.  They also warn of a darkness that has infiltrated the universe and threatens to destroy Mr. Murray, as well as the rest of creation.

This film is all about confronting fear and embracing our flaws, as well as harnessing the power of individuality and self expression.  It’s a message, as translated from the book by screenwriter Jennifer Lee and directed for the big screen by DuVernay, that is entirely devoid of cynicism, and is seated firmly in joy and the power of love.  Even the costumes are an expression of this, as evidenced by the technicolor makeup and bejeweled eyebrows.

I can certainly see why it might come under fire by critics, either for not following the book word for word, (an accusation all too common in any screen adaptation of a classic) or for the barrage of ever-changing hyper-colorized landscapes.

To be fair, the script is a bit heavy on sweetness, and even ventures into the trite at times, but perhaps we all need a correction from the near constant negativity and hate we are pummeled with by our current administration. What’s so wrong with a movie filled with messages of love, self-acceptance, and sparkle, led by a lovely, quirky girl of color?

Nothing, I say.  Put on your shiniest attire and tesser over to your closest theater.  You’ll be treated to a movie that embraces its own optimism and demands empathy.  We could all do well to take it in.

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