Growing Up Fast: Marielle Heller brings revealing ‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’ to life

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Eight years ago, Marielle Heller was gifted Phobe Gloeckner’s graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl and, in a nutshell, it changed her life. The book—which follows the 15-year-old cartoonist Minnie’s sexual and artistic explorations in 1970s San Francisco—was a Christmas present from her sister, who never thought she would take it this seriously. But to Heller, women were underserved these types of authentic, honest takes on what it is like to be a teenage girl, so she felt bound to tell Minnie’s story and has been lovingly living and breathing it ever since.

At the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Museum of Modern Art’s prestigious New Directors/New Films series—where The Diary of a Teenage Girl screened as the Opening Night film back in March—Heller pithily and passionately summarized her reaction to the book, reckoning it must be “how dudes feel when they read J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.” Joining me on the phone just last week, she aptly echoed and expanded upon this sentiment she delivered months ago. “You almost don't realize you have a giant void until you see it getting filled,” she said, remembering her immediate feelings upon reading Gloeckner’s book. “Suddenly I realized there's such a void of women's stories like this that make you feel less alone in the way that I think this story does for women. I just felt really, effectively compelled to bring it to life and basically have spent the last eight years working on it.”

During this time, the multi-talented writer/director/actor Heller wore many hats as an artist, and her enthusiasm for Minnie’s vibrant and idiosyncratic coming-of-age tale took several different forms. Yet she didn’t envision it as a cinematic project at first. Coming from theatre originally and crediting the art form as her first love, she initially adapted the novel as an off-Broadway play in 2010 and assumed the lead role herself. But even after a successful extended run and a rave New York Times review, she knew she wasn’t done with Minnie. “I had started writing other screenplays and had been working within film and TV at that point. So I started imagining it as a film.”

So Heller adapted the book to a feature-length film script and got accepted into the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and Directors Lab in 2012—programs that helped her further perfect her vision of the project. And she passed on the “Minnie” torch, trusting the sensational British actress Bel Powley, whom she found through a knockout audition tape, with the role. “When I was putting out the casting breakdown for what I needed for this part, I felt like I was basically writing an impossible list of demands,” Heller recalls. “An actress who was fantastic with dramatic subject matter but good at comedy, who could look like a woman but also could look like a child, who was comfortable in her sexuality but could also play the awkwardness of being a teenager. She needed to be wise beyond her years and convincingly naïve. And then along came Bel Powley, and she just embodied all of those. I don't know how lucky I got to find her.”

Having traveled through the festival circuit since Sundance (while collecting numerous awards, from “Best Feature Film” in Berlin in the Grand Prix of Generation 14plus section, to “Best International Feature Film” at the Edinburgh International Film Festival), Marielle Heller is now getting ready to share her love of Minnie with the rest of the world through specialty distributor Sony Pictures Classics. SPC is no stranger to guiding female-centric films (like An Education and Blue Jasmine) successfully towards awards contention. An early August opening—before the noise of the fall film festivals dominates the headlines and officially launches the Oscar season—suggests big hopes for Heller (who is currently attached to direct Natalie Portman in a movie about Ruth Bader Ginsburg) beyond box office. If The Diary of a Teenage Girl steps into the awards playing field, it will be a very welcome entry (almost an anomaly in today’s cinematic environment) that cracks an early contender list currently and typically heavy on male filmmakers and male-led biopics.

The film is a very welcome—if not desperately needed—anomaly in its very existence as well. For starters, it understands and doesn’t gloss over female sexuality, while embracing its young protagonist’s mistakes and insecurities. Moreover, it allows Minnie to grow as a person and as an artist, never losing sight of her as an individual. We watch Minnie have fun with (lots of) sex with an older man who is controversially her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (characters played by Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgård, respectively) and consequently get herself into a messy situation. Yet Heller’s script spares judgment and punishment, and instead affectionately holds Minnie’s hand throughout.

Elaborating on her approach to keeping the film’s attitude judgment-free, Heller briskly calls out the gender-based double standards her film delicately avoids. “The lesson we give to boys is that they're going to experiment and make mistakes, and that's all right. Boys will be boys. And then we tell women that their virginity is something they have to guard with their life. Any mistakes they [make], they'll be wearing on their body for the rest of their lives.” Heller clarifies that there are of course consequences to a promiscuous life, such as STDs and unwanted pregnancies, but certain mistakes still won’t mean it’s the end of the world. “You're going to have to deal with the psychological consequences, but you aren't going to necessarily be punished by the universe for enjoying sex or exploring your sexuality. For many people, that's a very positive part of their life.”

But that doesn’t mean Heller thinks of Minnie’s relationship with Monroe as a positive experience; in fact, she acknowledges its abusive nature. The film however, being from Minnie’s point of view, stays true to her feelings and perspective throughout. “I think while [Minnie] is in [the relationship], she doesn't feel like it's an abusive experience. She doesn't feel like she's being victimized, so we can't feel like she's being victimized,” she notes, explaining the film’s well-managed balances. “There are a lot of abuse instances where someone is being taken advantage of, but it's not [always] black and white. It's not like the virginal, perfect woman [is] being taken advantage of by a predator. It's often much more complicated than that. I think it's dangerous that we're only willing to talk about complex relationships when we can know what the moral lesson is behind them,” she voices her frustration. “When they're more grey, we have a much harder time talking about them, but I think that's much more common.”

Delving into one of my favorite scenes in the film—when Minnie takes charge of awkward sex with an inexperienced boy her own age—Heller once again mentions false lessons young women are often taught about intercourse. “We tend to tell women that [they’re] not going to want to have sex. But more often than not, girls mature faster than boys and often are more sexually mature than boys are,” she observes. “I think a lot of women can relate to that feeling of exploring [their] sexuality, maybe exploring [their] power, and then having a boy be threatened by that and what a shaming experience that can be. There's something incredibly empowering about seeing a woman take control of [a] sex scene and turn it around to seek her own pleasure. That's something we rarely see.”

Admittedly, the film’s ’70s backdrop—when sexual exploration and feminist awakening were afoot in the culture—helps in fully grasping Minnie’s choices. “It's an era where there are sort of no grownups in Minnie's life,” states Heller. “She doesn't have any real role models to look [up] to. There's a sense that nobody wants to be a grownup, and people are living this extended adolescence. And that was the value system at the time.”

Discussing how she pulled off the visual look of the era, Heller praises her crafty collaborators and designers in capturing a genuine, lived-in ’70s Bay Area feel while not showing signs of budgetary constraints onscreen. “The truth of the matter is, you set out to make a movie set in 1976, and you [think,] ‘What were all of the fashions that had just come out that year, what did the cars look like, what did the furniture look like?’ But in reality, people have ten-year-old couches that they've inherited from their mother, and they have cars that they've been driving for the past fifteen years. It has to feel like the characters' emotions are living through their objects and their clothing.”

Heller warmly notes that the production was a big family affair, with people chiming in any way they can. “It was all beg, borrow and steal. My family and friends are all in the Bay Area. People brought their cars. We borrowed from the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. We raided everybody's closets. The costume designer is my sister-in-law, Carmen. She had a huge job because Minnie alone had 40 outfits. You can really track her entire emotional journey through her clothes. There are times she's kind of exploring Rocky Horror and the glam-punk world that's emerging in San Francisco, and she's wearing a little too much makeup and shoes that she can't quite walk in yet. She's trying on being a little bit older, and then there are times when she's wearing those comfy jeans that you know she's had for her whole life.”

To Heller, Minnie’s relationship with her mother Charlotte—who leads an unconventional and party-heavy life true to the era—was always going to be the crucial spine of the story. “Minnie's mother is a very narcissistic, alcoholic mom, and [Minnie] is always seeking love from her, feeling a bit neglected along the way. I think that definitely leads to the experiences that she goes through.

“It wasn't like suddenly her mother had just become the perfect mother, because that just wouldn't feel realistic,” Heller continues, articulating how important it was for her to evolve the relationship of the two by the end of the film. “They come to accept and see each other for who they are. They can move forward in their relationship, but she's never going to have the type of mom that she wishes she had. So there’s a bittersweet-ness to that ending.

“But she does get a little bit of help from somebody whom she really admires,” Heller adds, referring to Minnie’s favorite cartoonist, Aline Kominski, whom Minnie has frequent imaginary conversations with and receives a life-affirming letter from at the end of the film. “[Aline] basically gives her the little nudge to keep exploring herself as an artist, which is the way that this particular character is going to learn to cope with the difficult things in her life. It was always important to me that Minnie wasn't going to find her happy ending with some boy from school,” Heller admits on a refreshing, quietly radical and rebellious note. “She was going to find it with herself and with her art.”