- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 13, 2015

Movie teenagers are typically depicted as either awkward, loner virgins or erudite pontificators who elocute with the unearned-for-their-age wit of Noel Coward. But the real truth of adolescence is more likely to be found somewhere in the middle.

Marielle Heller, the writer/director of the new film “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” concurs.

“I feel like, in some ways, we actually are doing a disservice, and we’re not actually [truthfully] paying respects to the experience of what it is to be a teenager when we write teenagers with the voice of adults just kind of put into their mouths,” Ms. Heller told The Washington Times. “Because then we don’t really have examples of what it felt like when we were teenagers, and we need to see that reflected” in popular art, she explained.

The film, which opens Friday in the District, is based on the 2002 book of the same name, written by Phoebe Gloeckner. “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” follows Minnie, a 15-year-old San Franciscan in the late ‘70s who embarks on an ill-advised affair with her own mother’s boyfriend, Monroe. The book relates Minnie’s voice in both text and illustration, pulling no punches in its hyperrealistic portrait of the often-regretful choices young adults make.

“Teenagers don’t have the same logic as grown-ups. Their emotional capacities are different, and their hormones are making them think in different ways,” Ms. Heller, who adapted the book for the screen herself, said. “It’s actually a wonderful thing to write when you can … tap back into that mindset in how your mind works [as a teen]. It’s a really potent time of our lives. There’s so much wonderful humor there and humanity, and it’s painful.”

Coming from an acting background herself, the California native realized that the film would likely sink or swim with the casting of Minnie. Ms. Heller found her star in 23-year-old British actress Bel Powley.

“Bel was just so special from the first moment I saw her,” Ms. Heller said of Miss Powley. “She could turn on a dime from looking like a girl to looking like a woman.”

Ms. Heller said Miss Powley’s interpretation of Minnie was precisely as she had written her in the screenplay.

“That was the type of teenager I was. I was not a quippy teenager with a sarcastic response to everything that happened in my life,” Ms. Heller explained, once again extemporizing on the typically wide gap between film and reality teens. “I was much more romantic and dramatic and felt like the sky was falling, or I was gonna die all the time.”

Certainly Ms. Heller didn’t make it easygoing for her young star. Filming required Miss Powley to be completely nude for several sequences, including some rather graphic sex scenes between her and the much older Monroe, played by Alexander Skarsgard (son of Stellan).

“When reading Phoebe’s book I was blown away by how honest she was … and I felt like it was really important … that we weren’t shifting the story to make the audience comfortable,” Ms. Heller said of the film’s candid depiction of the sexual relationship between Monroe and the underage Minnie.

Ms. Heller also feels that “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” treats budding female sexuality in a frank manner that films about teens — especially those about young women — typically do not.

“I think we have such a fear of teenage girls and their sexuality. I can’t help but feel that audiences are programmed to be more comfortable if it were about a boy,” she said. “But it being about a girl somehow just makes us squirm. And that just doesn’t seem fair. I just tried to put those thoughts out of my mind while filming.”

Of Miss Powley’s realizations of the complexities of Minnie, Ms. Heller adds, “She had really harsh emotional scenes that she had to capture, and she just hit every one out of the park.”

Tragicomedy

For the role of Charlotte, Minnie’s boozing, drug-enjoying mother who is all but oblivious to her daughter’s encounters with Monroe, Ms. Heller had only one actress in mind to take on the richness of an adult figure who herself often acts in an immature fashion.

“I actively sought her out,” Ms. Heller of comedienne Kristen Wiig, veteran of “Bridesmaids,” “SNL” and star of the upcoming “Ghostbusters” remake.

While acknowledging Miss Wiig perhaps seems, on the surface, an odd choice for Charlotte, Ms. Heller pointed to a rich history of comedy actors taking dramatic turns before the cameras.

“It did feel like a different side of Kristen than we would have ever seen,” Ms. Heller said of Miss Wiig. “It was so important that we found a way to approach her character not as somebody we would hate. We couldn’t just see her as this bad mother; she had to be somebody who was really tragic in many ways and who we could feel sorry for as well as connect to and kind of go, ‘Oh, we all knew the people who had that mother who was maybe a little too young when she had kids.’

“I felt really excited thinking about Kristen in that part, and she just feels in the movie like she stepped out of the ‘70s. She just inhabits [Charlotte] in such a way.”

Despite the film coming to theaters this week, it took Ms. Heller some time to convince Ms. Gloeckner to allow her to adapt her book for the silver screen. Many other screenwriters had tried before — most of them male, Ms. Heller said — but the director “wouldn’t take no for an answer” from the author or her agent, both of whom she won over.

Ms. Heller even invited Ms. Gloeckner to the San Francisco set to ensure that her cinematic vision hewed close to Ms. Gloeckner’s original work. While Ms. Gloeckner has demurred in interviews as to how much of “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” although it is based on her own diaries, is in fact autobiographical, Ms. Heller said the author was receptive to the director’s queries and suggestions for its filmic realization.

“She was an open book,” Ms. Heller said. “Yet she gave me the freedom to do what I needed to do with the project without interfering.”

Ms. Heller also gave Ms. Gloeckner and one of her daughters cameos in the film. Ms. Gloeckner’s other daughter also worked for Ms. Heller as a production assistant.

Ms. Heller said the translation of the book to the screen is as much an interpretation as the book was of the author’s own teenager diaries — reality and fiction colliding in the search for truth.

“There’s been several incarnations where this has gone through this sort of process where it has changed to sort of become this new piece of art,” Ms. Heller said of her film, “which I think stories kind of have to do.”

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