Defying Hollywood conventions in 'Diary of a Teenage Girl'

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. (AP) — When you make a film where a 15-year-old girl sleeps with her mother's 35-year-old boyfriend, a few things are certain: You're going to make some people uncomfortable and you're going to get feedback. A lot of it.

But first time director Marielle Heller knew what she wanted for "The Diary of a Teenage Girl," out Friday, and it didn't involve ensuring people were comfortable.

Heller's adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner's graphic novel looks at teenage sexuality from the point of view of the teenager. There's no judgment. There's just the story of aspiring artist Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley), a 1970s San Francisco teen with a neglectful, hard-partying single mother (Kristin Wiig) and a yearning for self-actualization. When her mom's boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard) opens the door to an intimate encounter, Minnie jumps right in.

Even the first line of the film proved controversial to some: "I had sex today."

"Most movies would have spent the first 30 minutes getting to know the character before she had sex," Heller said.

Many advised Heller to consider that approach.

"For Minnie, that's where this chapter of her life begins," she said. A long intro would have only been there to satisfy screenwriting conventions and to coax audiences into the story.

People also suggested standard Hollywood plot contrivances, like having Minnie end up with a boy her own age at the end, which wholly contradicted the point of the story. This was a story about Minnie's journey to self-acceptance outside of male validation, she thought.

"We're in a place where for so, so, so long men have been controlling movies," Heller said. "I'm not saying it's some major, master, malicious plan, but I do think there is a serious lack of comfort when it comes to talking about young women and their sexuality."

It was a blessing then that Heller, a writer and actress, found a financier — Caviar — who gave her the freedom to execute her vision, even if it was on a shoestring budget with lots of help from friends and family.

Most essential, though, was finding the perfect Minnie.

Heller, who'd played the part on stage, had a seemingly impossible list of qualities that she needed an actress to satisfy: To look young but also old; to be an every woman but incredibly special; to be believable as a comic book nerd; and to be beautiful and sexually confident but still exude the awkwardness of a teenager. Powley stood out as the rare embodiment of all those contradictions

Now 23, Powley had been sending tapes to the U.S. for years and hadn't booked anything. When she put her name in for Minnie, she wasn't expecting much, but she'd never read a role that resonated with her so deeply.

Simply, it reminded her of being a teenager, and that alone was revolutionary.

"I think there's such a vicious cycle surrounding teenage girls and female sex. People are scared of it, so they won't talk about it and people don't talk about it because they're scared of it," said Powley. "I wanted to be part of this project which was going to potentially break that cycle."

Once she was cast, she and Heller decided to forgo agents and managers and lawyers and "nudity riders" and work something out together. Trust was essential.

"I think having a female director was really important to her and me being an actor meant that I knew what I was asking her to do," Heller said. "I've been topless in a play. I know how hard that is. I knew what I was asking of her and she felt that."

Part of that trust came from knowing they both had the same objective.

"We wanted to make a movie about coming-of-age and exploring sexuality," Powley said. "We didn't want to make a movie about a 15-year-old (expletive) a 35-year-old man."

While the relationship between Minnie and Monroe is controversial on paper, on screen it's never presented as exploitative.

"The movie is all told from Minnie's point of view. If she doesn't feel it's creepy, we shouldn't feel it's creepy," Heller said.

In an effort to ensure that the film reach its intended audience, Heller worked to secure an R-rating. She wouldn't disclose the changes, but said that they didn't compromise the integrity of the film.

"I was very surprised by how well it went," she said, especially considering the fact that in the U.K., it was slapped with an "18" rating — which both Heller and Powley found dismaying.

"A board of men decided that this movie was not suitable for young women," Heller said. "Nobody tries to shelter young men from the realities of the world. Why do we try to shelter young women?"


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