“Diary of a Teenage Girl”: Director Marielle Heller and star Bel Powley open up

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Somewhere in the space between Ghost World and Welcome to the Dollhouse, you’ll find Diary of a Teenage Girl: the latest independent film with a fast pass to the cult classic hall of fame. 

The story, much like the title, may seem simple enough, but it’s one of the more daring movies made in the past twenty or thirty years. Set in 1970s San Francisco, it focuses on the sexual awakening of 16-year-old Minnie (Bel Powley), a young girl who starts having an affair with her mother (SNL’s Kristin Wiig) Charlotte’s boyfriend, Monroe (True Blood‘s Alexander Skarsgard). What could very easily turn into a Lifetime original movie instead defies convention in order to celebrate womanhood, the power of sexuality, and the autonomy of creative expression.

Director Marielle Heller and star Bel Powley had a conversation with us about the importance of Diary of a Teenage Girl in today’s cultural climate—why it’s relevant, what it’s saying, and who it’s speaking to.  

 

dot429: Pop culture fetishizes teenage girls so much, yet most stories it tells about them shy away from the reality of their lives. This movie doesn’t do that.

Marielle Heller: I don’t know why we have this obsession with sheltering teenage girls. It’s like we’re not paying attention to what they’re actually going through. I think we’re afraid of teenage girls…for whatever reason. We want to think of women as little kids and then as adults but we don’t want to think about how they got there or what they did in between. 

Often you see teenagers portrayed as really snarky, sarcastic and “over it.” That was just not my experience of being a teenager at all. I was so earnest.

Bel Powley: I don’t think that’s like anyone, really. It’s fake. They’re putting it on. 

MH: Everything feels [like it’s]life or death. The world is so dramatic. We were dramatic. That’s how we all work.  Part of the wonderful thing about being a teenager is you let yourself go to those dramatic places that you might be too embarrassed to let yourself explore later in life. 

dot429: Sexual liberation is obviously the take-away theme from Diary, but what stuck out for me the most were the messages about discovering your creative self. You once said Minnie is like your “spirit animal.” Is her journey becoming an artist one of the reasons why? 

MH: Definitely. That’s one of the main ways I related to Minnie. As a kid I just made art out of everything. I was always doing projects in my room. I feel like I spent a lot of time alone. 

Minnie copes with all the different things in her life by creating art around it. It’s her main coping mechanism. I think we as an audience feel like this girl’s going to be all right because she’s so talented. Part of why we she’s going to survive what she’s going through is because we see this talent of hers grow.

BP: And she uses her art as kind of a way to express her extreme emotions. Maybe all of us have that outlet.

dot429: Mari, you’ve spent almost a decade adapting Diary and exploring the character of Minnie. You even played her in a stage show here in San Francisco a while ago. How did this intimacy with the material influence your working relationship with Bel as a director? 

MH: I was really conscious of not wanting to come in and be like, “Let me just tell you everything about this character because I’ve figured it all out.” I love working with actors, especially fantastic actors. I love what they can bring to the table. When you’re suddenly working with new people who are new to material, it breathes this fresh air into it. If Bel saw something in the character I didn’t see or felt something I didn’t feel, it just breathes more layers into it.

BP: Mari was so up for us opening up to her about if we felt like a line didn’t fit in with our interpretation of the character or if we discovered new things on set. It was a super collaborative process, especially with Minnie. I feel like we both see her as this separate entity from us that we just want to protect and honor because she’s so unique and partly because she represents every woman. 

dot429: As someone from the Bay Area, do you feel like you put the spirit of San Francisco into this film?

MH: Oh, totally. I felt a big pressure to represent San Francisco in a way that felt authentic and real to the Bay Area that I knew and grew up in. I think San Francisco is one of the most beautiful cities, and for whatever reason there aren’t that many movies made that feel like they’re actually about this place. A lot of TV shows, too, are set in San Francisco. They just throw in a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge at the beginning and the rest of the time they’re just filming in LA. 

dot429: Like Charmed or something.

MH: Yeah, and there’s nothing culturally about the city there…it’s just such a weird thing. So yes, I really wanted to represent this specific place in that specific time because I think the ‘70s were such a fascinating cultural time post-“Free Love” and before Reagan.

BP: And SF is at the forefront of that, right? Of that sexual and social revolution.

dot429: Since we’re on the topic, what makes the 1970s the most ideal backdrop for this story? If it was set in any other decade it would be a lot more shocking.

BP: Like now. (Laughs)

MH: I hoped that it being a story about the ‘70s would give a little distance for the audience so they can feel like they can enter in and follow this young girl’s story with a little less judgement. I mean, it was the ‘70s. It was fucking crazy! People did weird things back then. Hopefully that makes the viewer slip in with less judgement, get swept away with the story and find themselves more on the ride rather than sitting back with a moralistic point of view. If it was set in today’s time, there’d definitely be a lot more moralizing.

BP: Also back then, lines between adult and teenager and child were very blurred.

MH: Totally blurred. Authority was being challenged at every turn. Everyone here was searching. It was all about exploration. If that’s the culture, that definitely permeates into family life.

BP: Even Christopher Maloni’s character, who’s meant to be the conservative one, still wants to send Minnie to that rich hippie school. Everything was very experimental. That allows more room for the age gap relationship. 

dot429: I noticed you used Patty Hearst as a symbol in the movie. There’s this scene where Charlotte (Wiig) talks about her and I thought, “Is she talking about herself?”

MH: That was a very conscious thread that I tried not to hit everyone over the head with. First of all, I think everyone in SF would be following that trial, really. People had signs out their windows that said like “Free Patty” and things like that. I also thought a lot about Charlotte as a character—where would she have been politically in her life? You couldn’t avoid getting involved in politics living in SF, but I don’t think she’s a very thoughtful woman who would be really that knowledgable about the politics involved in that situation.

BP: Even though she says to Monroe, “you should read a paper once in a while.” (Laughs)

MH: Exactly, but she’s like trying it on. She’s just trying on being “political” and relates as how I think a lot of people related to Patty Hearst. Charlotte relates to this woman who’s been abused and taken advantage of and yes, for whatever reason, she sees herself in Patty Hearst. 

dot429: Mainly, though, Patty Hearst is more of a metaphor for what Minnie’s going through. 

MH: Yes. That was the forefront for what I thought was a convergence. Everyone became so obsessed with the Patty Hearst trial because they wanted to know—whose responsibility is this? Where did we go wrong? How did this happen? 

Then it became this question of, are we as a society responsible for Patty Hearst or is she responsible for herself? How much are we in control of our own decisions? And how much are we being influenced by the outside world? 

Those are totally the questions that everybody grapples with [regarding]Minnie and what she’s doing with Monroe. Is she in control? She thinks she is. Patty Hearst thought she was in control, too. Is she being manipulated? Who is responsible for this girl, really? Who’s responsible for our women?

BP: It’s Monroe’s responsibility…

MH: Legally…

BP: He’s the adult in this situation.

MH: But he doesn’t feel like an adult.

dot429: No, he doesn’t.

BP: But I think Minnie is control of what she’s doing.

MH: If I think back to when I was 15, 16, I felt like I was totally in control of every decision I was making. 

BP: Yeah, because you were playing being an adult at that age.

MH: Well, I knew what was right for me more than anybody else did. Legally I couldn’t make the decisions I wanted to make…but you don’t feel that way at that age. You don’t feel like, “Suddenly, the day I turn 18, I’m an adult who knows how to take responsibility for myself, and before that I didn’t.”

BP: Or how when you’re 15, you feel like you’re a lot more adult than you do when become an adult.

MH: That’s true. That’s very true.

BP: That’s because you have some sort of parameters when you’re a teenager. You can play at being adult like within those boundaries. But then when you’ve got none, you’re fucked. (Laughs) 

dot429: This film’s story is somewhat built on misdirection, if you think about it. It starts off being all about sex, about being initiated into the “adult” world. But then it turns into this story about Minnie developing her own creativity and self-respect. 

BP: Totally. It’s about discovery and learning how to love yourself in your own heart.

MH: I think…she feels like those two things are in conflict with each other. Her obsession with sex and her art. Then she starts to realize, no, wait, these are connected. I’m going to process my feelings around sex and my body and myself through my art. And these are not things that are separated. 

BP: You don’t see so much of it in the movie, but her art develops as her relationship with sex and men develops. It grows at the same pace. Because at the beginning her art is more angry…

MH: Simpler too.

BP: And by the end it’s more pure. 

dot429: I think seeing Minnie search around for this, and confuse sexual attention for being valued, is relatable to anyone who’s living in the age of Facebook, Tinder and Grindr.

MH: A lot of people, young women in particular, are being taught right now that their self worth is made up of how desirable they are, how many likes they get on Instagram, or how hot they look in their picture. There’s a lot of materialism and superficiality to that.

It’s a really dangerous thing when women are identifying more with how men see them than with how they see themselves. It’s this weird detachment from our own needs and sense of self. Instead, you’re trying to fit into what other people want of you. There’s an issue in gay culture too with young men basically existing to be an object of desire.

BP: And you still put yourself on a pedestal, in a way.

MH: You think of yourself only in relation to men or only in relation to how you’re going to be seen by society rather than getting in touch with who you really are.

BP: That and the fact that all the women that you try and relate to in film or the media are completely unrelatable. It’s those two things combined just makes it very difficult to love yourself.

MH: I think it just separates us from ourselves. It separates us from our own sense of humanity. It splinters us or something.

dot429: Bel, even though the world is just now discovering you, you’ve already had such an accomplished acting career.

MH: I keep joking that I’m going to get credit for discovering her as though she was just scrubbing toilets before I met her. But the truth of the matter is, she was such an accomplished actress.

dot429: Your performance in Murderland was amazing. And yes, I did take a look at M.I. High.

(Laughter)

MH: I haven’t even seen it!

BP: I was like a baby in it. It was ten years ago.

dot429: Was that like an acting school for you? Were you into acting before?

BP: I didn’t even have an interest in acting. I literally got accidentally cast in that TV show. I didn’t want to be an actress, never even considered it. My dad’s an actor, my mom’s a casting director. The industry was un-glamorized for me from a young age. It was like, oh your dad’s a doctor, yours is a hairdresser, mine’s an actor.

And I got involved in this TV show and I didn’t even think I was that good at it. I wanted to go to university and be prime minister. (Laughs) That was my plan. And then when I started doing theater, it all went out of the window. That’s when I really fell in love with it. 

dot429: Seemed like a good way to prepare yourself for a lot of your future roles, though. I mean, you got to do drama, suspense, comedy…

BP: Oh my god, definitely! I want to go back and do more comedy. 

dot429: One more question to wrap things up. What’s one truth you’ve learned during the making of this film? 

MH: I’m just grateful for this movie and this process and this character of Minnie. I honestly feel like I’ve discovered myself as an artist through working on this in all of its incarnations in the past eight years. Recognizing that you can do something on your own, that you can manifest things. It’s been a gift for me.

BP: The same as that, I think. I discovered my true feminist self in more of an intense way, and what that really means for me. I feel like I’m a part of bringing down the patriarchy. 

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