Marielle Heller’s Sundance hit “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is not your average coming of age story. Based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel 2002 “The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures,” the film bravely and brazenly turns its taboo subject matter — the sexual awakening of a teenage girl — into a funny, smart and honest story that entertains as much as it educates. Heller’s debut feature stars Bel Powley as Minnie Goetze, a precocious 15-year-old muddling her way through the swinging scene of seventies-era San Francisco.
Like many girls her age, Minnie is struggling to find her place in the world, a journey made all the more difficult by her seemingly unstoppable hormones. As Minnie taps into her burgeoning sexual desires, her life takes a turn — straight into the arms of Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), her mother’s boyfriend. Sound like something you’ve heard before? It’s not, because while Heller deftly navigates questions of consent and issues of age, Powley’s Minnie makes it clear that she’s making her own decisions, even if they’re probably bad ones.
Powley was a perfect pick for the role, not just because the British actress was poised for a breakout hit (the 23-year-old has been working in the industry for nearly a decade) or because she’s got the kind of theater chops that so suit the role (Heller, who wrote and directed the film, previously adapted it for the stage and played the Minnie role herself), but because Powley is noticeably moved and clearly engaged with the film’s story and message.
That “Diary” would snap up such a dedicated champion in the form of its leading lady isn’t surprising, but it is lucky: With the film hitting U.S. theaters this week, both Powley and Heller have been very outspoken about the film’s ratings — an R in the U.S., an “18” in the U.K., meaning that no one under eighteen can see it, regardless of adult supervision — which seem to effectively block the very viewership that would most benefit from (and relate to) a screening of the outstanding film.
But Powley’s not worried.
The “Diary” star spoke to Indiewire last week, and she didn’t hold back about how she felt when she heard that the film — so cleverly and clearly made for the very audience it fearlessly chronicles — had been stamped for adults only. “I was very, very upset,” Powley said. “I remember speaking to Mari [Heller} about it when we were filming, asking ‘What rating do you think it’s going to be in the U.S.?’ And she’s like, ‘Oh, hopefully an R, but we’re not sure. What about in the UK?’ I went, ‘Oh, my God, definitely a 15. We’re really liberal. We wouldn’t rate this an 18.’ And then it happened!”
“I just feel like the people who watched the movie and made that rating were shortsighted and took the wrong message and got the wrong idea from the film,” Powley said. “It’s a very good example of what we’re trying to say: Society is very afraid of teenage girls and afraid of sexuality amongst teenage girls. People don’t talk about it because they’re scared of it.”
Still, the very existence of something like “Diary” is heartening to Powley, who believes it can enact real change in a world — and industry — so afraid of putting teenage sexuality on the big screen. “Something like ‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’ will hopefully broke that barrier,” Powley said. “I just hope young girls can sneak into the movie or get it on DVD when it comes out.”
The potential for Heller’s film to change the conversation was what drew the outspoken Powley to the part to begin with, and the actress was eager to not only star in a film that so compellingly speaks to the sexual maturation of teen girls, but one that does so in a positive — and body-smart — manner. “I think that body image in the media is so negative for young women at the moment,” Powley said. “It can be so damaging to people. It takes young women a long time to learn to love themselves.”
Given the number of sex scenes in the film, Powley’s positive attitude and desire to lend some realism to the entertainment industry couldn’t have been more appropriate for the part. “This may sound like a complete cliche, but I’m honestly so proud of it,” Powley said. “I mean specifically about, let’s just say it, the nudity and the nakedness.”
Part of Powley’s ability to approach to “the nudity and the nakedness,” with such a mature eye, is surely owed to the depth of her commitment to Minnie as her own entity. “When I first watched it, obviously I was nervous since I had never seen myself naked on the big screen before, and then it started and I honestly didn’t really care,” Powley said. “I felt like it was really not me. We always approached Minnie as this separate entity from both us. We tried to carve her out and honor her and her sexuality in the right way.”
This had a symbolic value as well. “We both felt really strongly that Minnie represents every woman, or every young girl, and represented both of us,” Powley said.
Still, she hasn’t entirely divorced herself from the literal body on-screen, but even that — and the honesty of it — remains empowering to her: “Of course it’s my body, that’s me, and I’m proud of it. Some of it’s awkward, some of it’s weird,” the actress said.
Though Powley is in her early twenties, part of her process involved tapping into the emotions that drove her as a teenager, all the better to understand Minnie’s viewpoint. “If I think back, I go, ‘How the hell did you live your life like that? How the hell did you live with your brain working in that crazy way?,” Powley said.
She remembers her teenage years — and the emotions that ruled them — well: “If someone says one wrong thing to you then you can immediately hate them. If someone accidentally brushes your tit then you can immediately think you’re in love with them. I feel like that’s such an exhausting way to live. You’re just not a very rational person.”
The film tracks the outcome of that process. “When you start having sexual experiences, you can attach yourself to those people who you’ve had those experiences with,” she said. “When your body and your mind are ready to start on that journey, you attach yourself to the first person that’s there, and that’s what we needed. I think that her body and her mind were ready for this time.”
As ready as Minnie may have been, Powley still understand that there are thorny issues at work when it comes to Minnie and Monroe’s clandestine romance. “I know she’s not in control for all of the relationship, and neither is he,” Powley said. “It is so risky. There’s a relationship in the movie between a fifteen-year-old and a thirty-five year old man! That could be really skewed by people.”
Yet the first reactions out of Sundance proved that Powley and Heller’s vision for Minnie had translated to the big screen. “People saw the movie the way we tried to present it. We tried to present it without any judgement and totally through Minnie’s lens and Minnie’s eyes,” Powley said. “It’s not a movie about that relationship, it’s about growth and sexual awakening and Minnie’s exploration. I felt people really saw it like I did.” Whether more will do that in U.S. theaters — especially teenage girls — remains to be seen.
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is in theaters on Friday.
READ MORE: Sundance Review: ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’ Unlocks the Secrets of Adolescence