When watching The Diary of a Teenage Girl, it’s easy to be struck by how different the film feels from pretty much every other cinematic account of female adolescence and sexuality. Fifteen-year-old Minnie (played by Bel Powley, who was 21 when she was cast in the film) lives in 1970s San Francisco with her sister Gretel and neglectful, free-wheeling mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig). She’s obsessed with the idea of sex and begins an affair with her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). But it’s not the plot that feels so revelatory—it’s the way in which its young female protagonist is given agency: As Slate’s Laura Miller writes, “When other films … have dealt with similar relationships, we’re meant to understand the girl as used, motivated by emotional rather than sexual hunger. Minnie, on the other hand, feels pleasure and wants more of it.”
I spoke with writer-director Marielle Heller, who adapted Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel of the same name for the screen about what drew her to Minnie’s story, how society views the sexuality of young girls, and dealing with censors.
You adapted and starred in a stage version of Gloeckner’s graphic novel for several years, and then went on to make the film adaptation. What is it about the story that has compelled you to work on the same project for such a long period of time?
It was really that I fell in love with this character—I fell in love with Minnie. I found her to be this teenage heroine that I had been seeking. It wasn’t one thing at all but it was really her voice. And when I read Phoebe’s book it was such a clear voice of a really curious, honest girl who says everything we think but doesn’t have shame about exploring what she’s really thinking. I just never had come across anything that felt nearly that honest before, that felt that honest about what it felt like to be a teenage girl. I felt like “Oh, boys have this sort of representation everywhere. There’s so many stories about what it feels like to be a teenage boy. And we just don’t have this.”
Is there anything in particular about Minnie that you identify with?
No, it’s not my story. I definitely didn’t sleep with my mother’s boyfriend or anything. But when I started developing sexually, and was interested in boys from a really young age—I was never taken advantage of in this sort of way, but it could’ve been me. What was great about her book was that it showed how close that is. How easily that sort of situation can get manipulated when you’re in that place where everything is just beginning and you’re just budding in that way. I grew up in the Bay Area so I knew people with parents like this and I understood the culture of the story. A culture of what the remnants of the sexual revolution & the ’60’s had done. I related less to what she’s experiencing and more to what she’s feeling.
Outside Diary of a Teenage Girl, are there any fictional representations of female adolescence that you feel have portrayed young female sexuality well?
No, that’s why I wanted to make the movie. I couldn’t come up with any examples that felt true to me. That was so discouraging and I’m sure there are examples that I’m just not thinking of, but nothing springs to mind. I think often teenage girls are written from a grown-up perspective and they’re projecting what we wish they were like or we’re keeping them in some two-dimensional space or letting them have perfect quippy answers to everything that happens to them and being really insoluble. But that wasn’t how it felt to me when I was a teenage girl, I was really earnest and dramatic and everything felt like death.
The youngest of the Kardashian clan, Kylie Jenner, has stirred up some controversy for her relationship with 25-year-old rapper Tyga. (She only recently turned 18.) What are your thoughts on how society perceives the age of consent and young girls’ sexual identities?
I think it’s hard because age of consent and statutory rape are there for a reason. When you’re a teenager, you can feel like you’re an adult but there’s things you don’t have the capabilities of dealing with. That’s not something that’s true across the board, that suddenly you turn eighteen and become responsible. It’s complicated, you know. When I was sixteen, if anyone told me they knew what was best for me, in terms of my own sexuality and my own choices, I would’ve been furious. Looking back, was I the smartest? No. Looking back, was I always making the best choices? No. That’s part of being a teenager, too. I think it’s a tough one. My intention with the movie was to not even go there with the judgment, we’re in her perspective and she doesn’t feel like a victim so we couldn’t approach the story that way. We as an audience couldn’t feel like she’s a victim … If I step back and really look at it, it’s a situation where she’s being taken advantage of. And there’s a lot of times someone is being taken advantage of and it doesn't feel like a predator/victim relationship when you’re in it, it’s only in hindsight that you feel that.
Was there any scene in particular where you thought, “I really need to be careful about how I portray this,” and if so, how did you go about doing that?
The whole movie is like a tightrope walk of where do I want the audience to be emotionally with this relationship? How do I want the audience to be feeling? My experience of reading the book was I found myself really not judging Minnie …
There was no one scene where I was like “This is the one,” but there was a scene early on in the movie where she bites his finger in the bar. That felt like this really complicated dance that they’re doing, the two of them, where one person pushes it a little further, then pulls back. The other person pushes it a little further, then pulls back. And it was the first scene that we filmed. So it was crazy that we had to do such a complicated, emotional scene as our first scene. But they both were so present and the tension was so palpable when we filmed it that I was really pleased and I was like: Okay, we’re gonna be able to figure it out, this tightrope walk will work.
One of the things that struck me about the film is how “normal” the sex scenes were, almost as if it were two adults enjoying the pleasure of each other’s company—if this were a Lifetime movie, it would in all likelihood be portrayed as much darker and emotionally devastating for Minnie.
The whole movie is from Minnie’s perspective, so every single scene, including the sex scenes, is really from her perspective. If she is feeling good about a sex scene or moment, then that’s how we should be feeling about it … They’re not overly titillating, and they’re not scored with crazy music or anything like that, they’re pretty observational, and just letting the audience form their own opinion about what’s happening. I definitely just tried to steer clear of any choice that would tell the audience how to feel about any of it, including like, ominous music.
Compared to the novel, the connection between Minnie’s sex drive and her intense need for affection from her mother seems to come across more strongly in the film. Is this something you were aware of while adapting for the film—that much of Minnie’s sex drive is actually displaced longing for maternal affection?
Yeah, definitely. As I was writing the script … new things kind of came up as I was writing and this relationship with her mother kept calling out to be a little bit more fleshed out in some ways. And I definitely identified that part of what’s going on with Minnie is she’s feeling neglected by her mother, and part of her reaching out to Monroe comes from a deeply neglected place of wanting love, and wanting to be seen. And he’s the one who’s there, he’s the one who gives her that kind of attention, and her mom doesn’t.
I think you hit the nail on the head: it’s a really painful neglectful relationship, where Minnie doesn’t get to rebel against her mother the way most teenage girls [do]—she doesn’t have anything to rebel against … all she wants is her mom to love her and give her that attention that she’s been needing.
The film ends with Minnie announcing that the film is “for all the girls when they have grown.” Who is your intended audience, and what do you hope they take away from the film?
That little inscription is in the front of the book, and it always made me cry. I just found it to be a touching reason to tell this story. I do hope that this is a movie that young women can see—an R rating was the best we could’ve hoped for, I’m glad it’s not NC-17, I’m glad teenage girls can go to this movie with their parents or whatever, or with somebody older. But I read Phoebe’s book when I was probably 28, and it still spoke to me as fervently as I think it would’ve if I’d been 15 when I had read it. I was still processing everything that had happened when I was a teenager, and I talked to women who were in their 60s who were like, Oh my god, that was me, I related to this so much, it felt so present for me. So I do think it’s the type of story, I hope, that women and men, but women really can see themselves in and feel like it’s their story getting told and if they’ve never seen their story told like this, there’s something so cathartic about that. And I obviously hope teenage girls can see it—I think that’s important, and I would’ve loved to have seen a movie like this when I was a teenage girl.
As you mentioned, the movie has gotten an R rating. Did you have to fight for that R based on the film’s subject matter?
The MPAA worked with me and were really great. We got a … very strict rating in the UK, we got the equivalent of basically an NC-17 or X—we got an 18. So that was kind of shocking because I think I always felt like the U.S. had the strictest policy when it came to sexuality and stuff like that, so we didn’t think there was any chance that in Europe we would get anything stricter than we got here. So that’s been really disappointing, because that means no matter what, teenage girls can’t go see the movie; it’s a strictly 18 and over no matter what, even if you’re with an adult. So that’s been the biggest challenge in terms of censoring, and we just keep mentioning in the press that we just hope teenage girls will go sneak into it in the U.K.