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Strung Together Like a Memory: Marielle Heller on “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”

Marielle Heller’s “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” was far and away my favorite film of 2015. It garnered acclaim upon its Sundance premiere, though it struggled to find an audience in theaters. The “18 certificate” rating that the film received from British censors prevented teenagers in the U.K. from attending screenings, a sure sign of the discomfort provoked by uncompromisingly honest depictions of female sexuality. Based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 graphic novel of the same name, “Diary” centers on 15-year-old Minnie (played by the extraordinary Bel Powley) as she grapples with losing her virginity to Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), a man 20 years her senior. He also happens to be the boyfriend of Minnie’s mom, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig). Heller played the role of Minnie in her own stage adaptation of the book prior to helming this film, which marks her feature debut as a writer/director. It is an astonishing achievement on every conceivable level, and is guaranteed to impress anyone fortunate enough to view it on Blu-ray or DVD. 

Heller spoke with RogerEbert.com about the need for complex stories of female adolescence, her approach to the film’s animated sequences and why Skarsgård, in her opinion, delivers the bravest performance in the film. 

The stigmatization of female sexuality in cinema has caused filmmakers like Anjelica Huston and Deborah Kampmeier to struggle to get their work seen. I love how your movie breaks through that stigma with its mere existence. 

I think there’s a real desire to create a certain narrative when it comes to teenage girls. There’s a wildness about teenage girls that scares us as a society, so we tend to tell their stories with a really clear narrative. “This is the predator, this is the victim. This is how this goes wrong, this is the moral, and don’t worry, everything is going to get wrapped up into a tidy little bow.” We crave that. We don’t feel comfortable telling stories about teenage girls as honestly as we do stories about teenage boys. There’s such a long history of stories about complicated teenage boys that portray all of their feelings in a way that makes them appear normal. We have such a “boys will be boys” mentality. 

I don’t know why we have such a fear of teenage girls, but I just know that it left me feeling like I was never seen. My experience of what it really felt like to be a teenage girl was never reflected in media. The way teenage girls were depicted on film felt so false to me. I never saw my own experience of being a three-dimensional teenage girl who couldn’t be reduced to just one thing, like the “smart, brainy girl” or the “slutty girl” or the “weird, artist-y girl.” A complex, full female character was just so rare. That was part of why I wanted to make this movie and why I felt so drawn to Phoebe’s book and the character that she created. I found myself reflected in it in a way that I had never seen before. 

I was lucky in my process of making the movie that I found a lot of people who had a similar pet peeve and frustration about movies and media. They felt that the film had an important voice that needed to be shared, though people definitely had to hold back their knee-jerk desire for narrative. A number of people gave me notes like, “Maybe she should end up with the boy from school at the end,” and then I’d have to say, “That’s really not the point. It’s more about her learning to like herself.” They’d go, “Oh of course, I don’t know why I said that.” We’re just programmed to want these certain narrative devices when it comes to films about teenage girls. But regardless of that, I was lucky that I found people who immediately understood how important this story was. I didn’t have as many road blocks as I think I could have.

I have known victims of sexual abuse who were shamed into repressing their own sexuality. Minnie’s journey toward embracing her sexual identity and discovering her own self-worth is such an important and liberating one for modern audiences to experience.

Thank you, I appreciate that, and I think that it’s true. We tend to show abuse in black and white terms too, and the truth of the matter is that abuse situations are often much more complicated. They are complicated by feelings of love or partial desire or this or that, and the aftermath of it is complicated as well. Hopefully people can recognize their own situations in this movie, and see the truth of how complicated these situations can be reflected here. You are not going to be a ruined person. We have really bad messages for women about what happens when you don’t make the perfect choices when it comes to your sexuality.

How did your performance as Minnie in the book’s stage adaptation aid you in directing Bel?

I’ve never been so connected to one character in one story before in my life. I think that really helped me be able to keep the vision for the film because it is anchored in Minnie’s perspective. I felt like I knew Minnie inside and out. I knew what she was thinking and feeling, partially because I had embodied her myself and had written the script. I spent so many years invested in her story, and I was always focused on how to honor Minnie’s story and tell it in the most truthful way possible. I was very conscious of never trying to tell Bel, “When I played the part, I said the line like this.” That would’ve been really unhelpful to her. We just didn’t talk about it. Embodying her in the way that I did helped me to fully empathize and understand her as a character, and then Bel brought so much to the table too. 

She and I would talk a lot about how we felt when we were teenage girls. We’d check in with each other and say, “Is this ringing true, is this moment feeling like how you felt?” She was a little closer to her teenagehood than I was, and we used our own experiences as honesty touchstones. Bel brought such a wonderful physicality to the role. She captured the sort of feeling when your body has shifted and grown but you haven’t quite caught up to it yet. There’s a gangly-ness to your limbs and your pants might be too tight because you’ve gotten hips in the last year. [laughs] She just totally went with it, and it was a joy to watch.

In my review of your film, I likened it to a less misanthropic “American Splendor,” in how the stream-of-consciousness narration and animated flourishes create the cinematic equivalent of a diary.

I love that. That was the guiding principal for the whole film, this notion that we’re in her mind and telling this story that’s almost strung together like a memory, like a diary. Everything was guided by where Minnie was emotionally. In the times when she’s feeling totally in love with Monroe, he looks really handsome, and his apartment looks exciting and sexy. When Minnie feels like she’s being taken advantage of, his apartment might not have that glow to it. It will feel like a bummer, and she’ll start to see through some of the façade. The animation has multiple purposes, but it primarily serves to show us how special and creative Minnie is in how she sees the world, and how she is going to process that world through her art. 

I thought about the animation the way you think about songs in a musical. You should only burst into song when you have to, when the world is too overwhelming and you can’t express it any other way. There are times Minnie can’t express her weird or funny thoughts without having these bursts of animation. We tried to explore all of the unexpected ways that animation could pop in because we are in her mind’s eye so specifically. We are in her diary and in her mind, so the animation can come out of anywhere at any time, which is a really fun and freeing device. 

I especially liked the portrayal of Minnie’s 50-foot growth spurt, and how she tosses away the boy who’s uncomfortable with her preference for “being on top.”

That came out of Minnie’s emotions after having a sexual experience with a boy who shames her. He makes her think that she’s disgusting, and she feels judged by him. This experience turns her into a giant ogre stomping through the city. That’s a moment of animation that I thought worked particularly well in the film.

What inspired you to use “Looking For The Magic” by The Dwight Twilley Band for the film’s opening sequence? It accompanies one of the great slo-mo walks in recent movies.

[laughs] I knew that I wanted it to be that song even before we filmed. We definitely had that playing in our head while we shot that sequence. I actually came across that song from Steven Baker, who is a music supervisor. He didn’t end up working on this film but he was a dear friend of ours and had sent me that song. I just loved it so much, and I ended up becoming friends with Dwight Twilley and his wife Jan on Facebook. I convinced them that this song had to be in the movie, and they’ve been really supportive and awesome. That was a big accomplishment because I really, really wanted it to be that song. It’s the perfect opening to the movie.

I also loved the song, “Run To The Mountain,” that was featured in the film’s finale and written by your brother, Nate Heller.

Nate performed that song at the bar, which is the last scene between Minnie and Charlotte. That was a special thing for me. I went back to the Bay Area, which is where I’m from, to make this movie, and it was such a scrappy family affair. We were pulling every favor we could for getting cars and borrowing costumes and using locations that came through friends. To make a movie at this budget level, it’s very hard. We had to call on every single favor, and I’m just so lucky that I have an incredibly talented family. My sister-in-law became my costume designer, and she did an incredible job. The shirt displaying “Mickey Rat,” the character featured in subversive underground comics from 1970’s San Francisco, is the same one that Minnie wears in the book, and I have a huge poster of it up in my house now. As for “Run To The Mountain,” it just fit so well for that scene, and Nate ended up composing all the music for the movie.

Monroe could’ve easily been portrayed as a one-note creep, but Alexander brings a tremendous amount of depth to the performance.

I think it’s the bravest performance in the whole movie in a lot of ways. Alexander really brought a humanity to this character. It was so important to find an actor who didn’t judge Monroe. He came to the character with an open mind and could see the ways in which he wasn’t just a villain. Monroe is searching in his own right, and has the emotional maturity of a 15-year-old. It was important to show that he was struggling as well. If he just came off as a predator, it wouldn’t have been an interesting way to approach the relationship. We obviously all know Alexander from things like “True Blood,” but he is a very complex actor. 

He found a way to toe the line where you feel for him at times and you nearly end up rooting for him and Minnie to end up together because they seem emotionally compatible. Then you have to pull back and go, “What am I thinking? This is so wrong. He’s taking advantage of her, he’s so old. Why did I like him?” It’s because of his performance, which was so crucial. We got to rehearse with the two of them for a couple weeks before we started filming, and we got to deepen and nuance their relationship so that it wasn’t just surface-level. It had all the depth that you see onscreen in little twists and turns, pushes and pulls. Of course, Bel’s performance is what everyone’s talking about because she’s so mind-blowingly amazing. We haven’t seen a young girl performance like that in so long. But we should talk more about how awesome Alexander is too.

And let’s not forget Kristen Wiig, who somehow manages to navigate through her character’s tangled mass of anger, love, betrayal, guilt …

And her tendency to be competitive with Minnie instead of motherly. She’s proud of her daughter’s sexuality in some ways, and repulsed by it at the same time. Kristen just transformed. She looks like someone who stepped right out of the ‘70s—your friend’s cool mom who you smoked weed with. [laughs]

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