‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’ Conveys the Tumultuous Adolescent Experience From a Female Perspective
Bel Powley is tired of talking about nudity. “Obviously it's weird to be naked, you know what I mean? It's a little bit weird.” The 23-year-old British actress has fielded one too many questions about her nude scenes in Marielle Heller's directorial debut The Diary of a Teenage Girl, in which she stars as Minnie Goetze, a curious, artistic 15-year-old on a sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll journey of self discovery in 1970s San Francisco. But while it may have felt slightly awkward for the actress to be nude on set, it was only in keeping with her character.
“The fact that [Marielle and I] were portraying something that is so real to both of us, and represents every woman to us, liberated me from wanting to pretend do be anything other than a normal, awkward teenager,” Powley explained.
Like many teenagers, Minnie keeps a diary. She records it to audiotape while sitting on her afghan-laden bed, beneath her Iggy Pop poster. “I had sex today...holy shit!” she recounts in one entry. Powley plays her gleefully, bouncing around like a 15-year-old in full bloom who has just passed into the realm of womanhood. But there's one problem. Minnie's paramour is her mom's 35-year-old boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård).
The director's love affair with Minnie began eight years ago when she read Phoebe Gloeckner's novel of the same name. Entranced by this honest portrayal of a teenage girl emerging from adolescence and owning her sexuality – a storyline portrayed frequently in cinema from a male perspective, but rarely from a female's – she adapted the book into a play and staged it off-Broadway, casting herself as the lead. Not ready to let go, she developed a screenplay and polished it up at the Sundance Institute's lab program.
“The Sundance labs were crucial for me,” Heller said. “When you're an artist you spend a lot of time feeling like you're making work in a vacuum and you're alone, and to suddenly have this amazing organization who's like, 'We just want to support you as an artist. What can we do to help you?' It was like, 'What?! What are you talking about?!' It was so shocking and pure and beautiful; it just felt like this warm bath of support.”
At the Sundance labs, Heller got feedback from advisors like Lisa Cholodenko (2015 AAU Media Awards honorary doctorate recipient) that strengthened her voice, clarified her story and gave her the confidence to step out as a director. Surrounded by a talented crew, many of whom were friends (Kristen Wiig who plays Minnie's mom) and family (composer Nate Heller is her brother and fashion designer Carmen Grande is her sister-in-law), she shot the film in 24 days. One collaborator, animator Sara Gunnarsdottir, played a pivotal role, giving the film a graphic garb that brought Minnie's thoughts and emotions to life through animation.
“Intrinsically, Minnie is an artist,” Heller said. “That's who she is in her bones. She processes her life through art, so we needed to see the depth of her talent and her evolution as an artist and how she learns to cope with her life through making art.”
Scenes like the one where a gargantuan heroine stomps through the streets in the style of Minnie's personal hero Aline Kominsky-Crumb give us a look into her mind, while hand-drawn hearts and daisies help keep the atmosphere light despite unsettling scenes that come later. At one point, Minnie's flying high on LSD, levitating with glittering rotoscoped wings – an effect created by taking each frame of the shot and hand painting over hundreds of feathers, which were hand-sewn onto a custom costume.
Though Heller didn't go to film school, and she wasn't privy to some of the technical knowledge that comes in handy on set, she soon found that her most useful tool as a director was to admit when she didn't know the answer to something.
“Sometimes being able to admit that is the best thing you can do as a director,” she said. “You can say, 'What do you think?' And bring in all the talented people you're collaborating with and ask them to rise to the challenge and help you make your movie, because making a film is not a solo activity. I have a lot more to learn, but I started to feel like – 'Hey, you're never gonna feel totally ready.' At some point you just gotta jump in.”
The Diary of a Teenage Girl will open in San Francisco on Friday, August 14.