Teenage girls are just as horny and confused about sex as teenage boys, but you wouldn’t know it from watching American movies. The coming-of-age canon is chock-full of teenage boys floundering in their newfound sexuality. You can find them striving to conquer their virginities, getting too drunk at house parties, test-driving their new cars or doing something in school hallways that’s vaguely recognizable as flirting. Where are the girls? They are, of course, the objects of the boys’ affection.
Growing up, I watched a lot of movies. Like other young girls, I learned to view my sexuality through the male gaze. I learned that I was to be pursued; if I wasn’t, I was simply not desirable. I learned that I was supposed to be a sylph-like creature: light, airy, hard to understand and even harder to catch. By watching coming-of-age films, I learned to be everything that the empowered protagonist of “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is not.
This week, Sony Pictures Classics will release the most candid portrayal of female sexuality I’ve seen to date. Marielle Heller’s film, based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel of the same name, follows sixteen-year-old Minnie (Bel Powley) on her journey of sexual awakening. It’s a messy journey, fraught with questionable decisions and the inevitable debasing situations that follow. But it’s one that’s full of agency — Minnie’s — and it ultimately leads to self-discovery and power.
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“You almost don’t realize you have a void until you find the thing that fills that void,” Heller told me last week. “When I was a teenager, I hadn’t realized how much I had been longing for a proper representation of what it felt like to be a teenage girl until I came across Phoebe’s book.”
In fact, Heller, who has a background in acting and playwriting, hadn’t thought of directing a movie at all until she encountered the graphic novel. “It hit me like a bolt of lightning,” Heller recounted. “I didn’t want to make a film. I just had to make this film.”
What was singular and compelling about the graphic novel was its unadulterated perspective on female sexuality. Heller saw a need to bring this perspective to the screen.
“If we’re only reflecting what it is to be a young boy coming to terms with their sexuality, then girls are always going to be the objects of those stories,” said Heller. “They’re never going to be the ones with agency. They’re never going to be the ones getting to have their own experience. They’re going to see themselves through the eyes of men instead of seeing themselves for themselves.”
As a consequence of affording young men this dominant role, limited representations in coming-of-age stories leave young women struggling to take ownership of their bourgeoning sexuality. This can lead to low self-esteem and what Heller describes as damaging behavior. “I just think it’s total bullshit,” said Heller. “The way we treat boys is how we should be treating girls.”
But “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” doesn’t transpose the male coming-of-age story onto a female protagonist. It instead embraces the intricacies of female sexuality, with all of its contradictions, emotions, and power struggles. This is what renders Heller’s film a definitive change of status quo. At is center, and in every scene, is Bel Powley, who plays precocious Minnie with a fierceness of expression beyond her years. She’s an active character at every juncture.
When the movie opens — “I had sex today. Holy shit!” — Minnie has decided to lose her virginity. She pursues her mother’s boyfriend, discovering the ease with which she can wield sexual power over reason. Minnie’s feelings intensify, and the relationship devolves into a nebulous battle of wills. Passionate sex gets mistaken for true intimacy as Minnie learns that sex can be a force of destruction. But even at its nadir, Minnie asserts herself in the relationship. Heller has painted a confident portrait of a young woman who retains her self-worth throughout the trials and tribulations of maturation.
After receiving the go-ahead from Gloeckner to discard her reverence for the graphic novel and bring the story to cinematic fruition, Heller, much like Minnie and her sexuality, had to figure things out as she went along. “I wasn’t a director, but I couldn’t even imagine somebody else directing my movie,” said Heller. “So I had to figure out how to direct.” She took her script to the Sundance Writer’s Lab followed by the Director’s Lab, where she “had film school crammed into five weeks.” By the time she emerged, Heller felt she had found her voice as a director. Now she had to find her Minnie.
“It was the hardest casting breakdown to put out, because I was asking for all of these antithetical ideas in one person,” said Heller. Minnie had to be good at comedy and drama. She had to be ordinary and extraordinary. She had to be able to look plain—relatable, even “comic book nerdy”—but also captivating and alluring. She had to be able to play a young child and a more mature woman in touch with her sexuality. She had to be strong and vulnerable. On top of all that, Heller had to find a young actress who was comfortable with her body and willing to engage in explicit sex onscreen. According to Heller, “it was a tall order. A really tall order.”
“Nobody ever gets cast from audition tapes, but I watched Bel Powley’s and was so floored,” remembers Heller, who said agents circulated the script to every actress under the age of 21 in Hollywood. “I kept comparing everyone to her.” Heller flew the British 21-year-old out to New York to meet Alexander Skarsgard, and their chemistry was palpable. “We all spoke the same language and wanted the same thing out of this story,” she said. “It just felt so right.”
Heller faced a unique challenge with the two actors. She needed to circumvent the other story — the tawdry story that “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” could have been, were we not to stay rooted in Minnie’s perspective. Without the careful concoction of Powley’s self-assurance (even if it’s at first a costume she tries on for size) and Skarsgard’s gentle and pathetic interpretation of his character, the relationship could invoke predatory overtones.
But how can Minnie be the victim if she’s the one driving? “She doesn’t view herself as a victim, doesn’t view herself as somebody who’s being manipulated, so I didn’t want us to feel that way,” explained Heller. “I didn’t want there to be that external adult judgment on the story.” Because Minnie doesn’t view her mother’s boyfriend as her story’s creepy antagonist, neither do we.
Part of the powerful force of female subjectivity in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” are the brazen sex scenes. Heller disabuses idealizations of sex; she would rather show something like the real thing. “It’s important to see awkwardness and clumsiness, because that’s part of our sex lives. Sex can be really sexy, but it can also be really funny.” Even more striking is the abandon with which Powley approaches the scenes. She looks — get this! — like a normal person who is comfortable in her own skin.
“Bel is a gorgeous girl with a very normal-person body,” said Heller. “Seeing her onscreen is really refreshing. She doesn’t have big, fake boobs. She’s not airbrushed and perfect, and she’s given such a brave and intimate performance where she just lets us look at her. She likes her body, and it’s a really great thing to see.”
In order to get to an honest place, “Bel and I had to establish a really, really trusting relationship,” said Heller. The sex scenes were the first order of business in the shooting schedule, so Heller cultivated this trust from the outset. “We talked so much about the emotional place that the characters were in when we talked about the sex scenes,” she said. “We talked about what their motivation was, what their obstacles were, where they were coming from.”
For Heller, the experience of discovering Gloeckner’s novel felt like an overwhelming sense of relief. “It was just like, ‘Oh my God, this is what I’ve been waiting for,'” she remembers. For female audiences, discovering “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” will be much the same. “A lot of women come to me and tell me their stories of when they lost their virginity after they’ve seen this movie,” she said. “I find that really enjoyable.”