Sundance 2015: Sex, Drugs and 'Diary of a Teenage Girl'

How a young director and star took on a popular coming-of age novel and made a breakout hit

Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgaard in 'A Diary of Teenage Girl.' Credit: Sam Emerson

Meet 15-year-old Minnie Goetze: She's just lost her virginity to her mother's 35-year-old boyfriend, Monroe, in mid-Seventies San Francisco. "I had sex," the young woman says. "Holy shit!" Right from the beginning of Marielle Heller's adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner's 2003 frank, semi-autobiographical tome The Diary of a Teenage Girl, you're experiencing the world (as well as Minnie's appetite for sex, drugs, and art) though its heroine's perspective via a mix of diary entries, candid voiceovers and tripped-out animated vignettes. Anyone who's read the book could tell you that its unstructured narrative and mix of prose and illustrated panels doesn't exactly lend itself to the big screen — all of which makes the writer-director debut film that much more impressive.

Heller discovered the book eight years ago when her younger sister gifted it to her for Christmas. "The moment I closed the cover on it, I picked up the phone and called the publisher, not even knowing what I was going to say other than 'I want to adapt this,'" says Heller, two days after the film's Sundance premiere. At the time, she was primarily working as an actress, and disappointed by all the "poorly written roles" she was stuck with. ("I was babbling and pacing in my apartment. I was driven by a force I can't even explain.") According to Heller, Gloeckner had been approached several times before, but the author didn't feel the interested parties were drawn to the book for the right reasons. "I think some people wanted to change the story and moralize it," she says, "which is something I never wanted to do."

The director had no intention of turning Diary's wild-child coming-of-age story into a cautionary tale; at the same time, she wasn't looking "to exploit anybody or be gratuitous," which is a tricky balance given the book's plot. It's Minnie who more or less initiates the relationship with the older man, as well as dropping acid, participating in a threesome and pretending to be a hooker — but she's also talented and moody and passionate and pained. In short, she's more real than the salacious details make her sound. Fortunately, Heller found the most compelling lead in newcomer Bel Powley. "She was so crucial," says Heller. "She submitted an audition tape, which is surprising because you never hear of people getting cast because of a tape. I fell in love with her."

I think female sexuality isn't explored enough in film — or even in conversation.

It's impossible not to. The 22-year-old Londoner plays Minnie to perfection, moving between silliness and carnality with the ease of an actual teenager. The role demanded a lot of nudity and physicality, and by the time we caught up with her, she had answered approximately 567 questions regarding the matter. "Of course [I was nervous], in the way that anyone's going to be scared about exposing themselves like that," says Powley, looking older than her onscreen counterpart in a black leather jacket and slacks. "But the reason I did the movie is because I think female sexuality isn't explored enough in film, or in any medium — or even in conversation. That was more important to me, so I got over it quickly."

At the premiere, the Sundance audience was enthusiastic, as Sundance audiences tend to be, but read the comments section for a couple of the early reviews (or, on second thought, don't) and it's clear that outside of the supportive festival setting, Diary is destined to come under fire for its portrayal of what is, legally speaking, statutory rape. "I'm prepared for people to be up and arms," says Heller. "But I think there's some real emotional feelings between the two of them, and I think Monroe (played by True Blood's Alexander Skarsgard) is, emotionally speaking, 15-years-old. I do think he's irresponsible, but I view it as a super-complicated relationship that lives in the grey zone. Ultimately, it helps Minnie get in touch with her sexuality, which is a good thing. It also helps her find her own self-worth — which is a really good thing."

Powley adds: "We're not trying to promote 35-year-old men having sex with 15-year-old girls, but I think we wanted to do the movie and play the characters without judging them. We didn't want to portray Monroe as a predator, because that's not what he is. And Minnie was at a point in her life where she could've fallen in love with whoever she lost her virginity to, as a lot of young girls do."

For both women, Minnie's story, which is really Gloeckner's story, speaks to their own adolescence, even if they didn't go to the same extremes. "As a horny teenager, I always felt like something was wrong with me," says Heller. "I was really empowered and comforted by Phoebe's book, and by the depiction of a young girl who's exploring her sexuality without shame." Powley, whose teenage years aren't that far behind her, says, "For sure, I went through everything Minnie goes through. Mari really hit the nail on the head in terms of the frustration of being a teenager and oscillating between so many different things at one time. I was a nightmare when I was like 13, 14, 15; by 16 I'd kind of done everything, so I was this little adult."

Fans of the book will surely be pleased with the faithful adaptation, but in the end, this movie is not just for the fans. In Minnie's words, it's "for all the girls when they have grown."

Check out our Sundance page for complete coverage of the 2015 festival.