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A 'Diary' Unlocked: A Teenage Coming-Of-Age Story Put On Film

Bel Powley stars as Minnie Goetze in <em>The Diary of a Teenage Girl.</em> Directed by Marielle Heller, the film is based on a semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner.
Sam Emerson
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Bel Powley stars as Minnie Goetze in The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Directed by Marielle Heller, the film is based on a semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner.

Graphic artist and professor Phoebe Gloeckner had an unconventional upbringing. When she was 15, she lost her virginity to an older man — who also happened to be her mother's boyfriend. Gloeckner chronicled the experience in her teenage diaries, which she put aside and then revisited when she found them decades later.

"I remember I opened the box with the diaries and I was just stunned to start reading," Gloeckner tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "To hear this child's voice, kind of, talking to me as an adult, it felt like it was crying out to be heard."

In 2002, Gloeckner detailed the turmoil of her teenage years in the semi-autobiographical graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Eight years later, actress Marielle Heller adapted the book and starred in a New York theatrical production. More recently, she directed a movie version of the work, with Bel Powley as a teenage girl named Minnie, and Kristen Wiig as her mother.

Heller tells Gross that she felt an immediate connection to Gloeckner's novel: "Even though this isn't my story — I wasn't a teenage girl who slept with my mother's boyfriend — I was a sexual teenage girl, and I was into boys from a really young age. ... Reading Phoebe's book ... made me feel less alone and like, oh, maybe this is normal, maybe this isn't such a crazy thing to have been having all these thoughts and feelings."

Interview Highlights

On having a sexual relationship with her mother's boyfriend as a teenager

Phoebe Gloeckner : It was my first experience of any sort, the first person I ever kissed. ... It is upsetting, and the book, to me, has a lot of sadness, and it doesn't condone that relationship in the least. I think I was such a lonely kid and the adults in my life were busy with their lives in various ways, and he kind of just stepped in and was paying a lot of attention to me, and it turned into this other sort of attention. And I think in my head I thought, "Gosh, he's such a great guy. If he's doing this, maybe it's OK and maybe I just don't know."

On telling the story from Minnie's point of view, without judgment

Gloeck ner : I was very, kind of, hypersexual, and it felt very pleasant and it did feel like love, it did feel like wonderful attention. So in that sense, I look at the story and I'm trying to express the voice of that girl with no judgment, just to express what she felt.

Marielle Heller: It felt like the way to honor Minnie's experience with the film was to tell the story purely from her point of view. So while she's experiencing that conflating of lust and love and that confusion whether these first sexual experiences are consensual or not, I wanted the audience to experience it the way she's experiencing it, and if she's not feeling like a victim in those moments, we shouldn't be feeling like she's a victim. If she's finding empowerment in moments of it, then we wanted that to be the experience of the film. Although I do think it's ... an abusive situation and she's being taken advantage of, but it's being told so much from her perspective, because I think a lot of situations, especially where young women are being taken advantage of — what I thought was so beautiful about what Phoebe had written is she kind of explained how you could fall into this type of situation, and how that could've been almost any of us in many ways.

On telling a therapist about her relationship when she was a teenager

Gloeckner : I went to a therapist, I guess I was sent there when I was 15. I think the school wanted me to go, maybe my mother wanted me to go, because I had been kicked out of several schools already and it wasn't clear why. I told the therapist [about the sexual experience] and she was totally freaked out, she was actually a therapist who dealt with childhood trauma ... so I thought she was going to help me, but she just said, "I've met with your mother, I cannot talk to you anymore. I'm going to have to find someone else for you to go to." She didn't report back to my mother, she didn't tell my mother what was going on, she just kind of flipped out. I remember feeling like, "This is too much for adults, they're not going to want to hear it." I was kind of silenced just by the therapist telling me she couldn't deal with it and not really explaining why.

On her mother's reaction when she found out

Gloeckner : I think she took it very personally that it was a personal blow, we were hurting her. I think that was her initial reaction, which I think a lot of people would have. There's a combination of shock and you don't really realize or fully integrate what's happened. ... She still maintains that she was very betrayed by this.

Heller: She blamed you.

Gloeckner : She blamed me. ... I don't think she was really capable of understanding how it affected me. She had been a teenage mother, she was still very young, very beautiful, very involved in her social life, and having a teenage girl in her life who was about the same age as she was when she got pregnant and got married, I can only imagine that she looked at me as something that was — she didn't know if I was adult or a child. She didn't know how my life compared to hers. People constantly mistook us as sisters. So no matter what she was feeling, there was reinforcement from those around us, like "Big Phoebe and Little Phoebe, they're just two peas in a pod, they're almost the same age." But it wasn't true. I was a child.

On casting Bel Powley as Minnie

Heller: In my mind, I kind of quantified the type of beauty I was looking for as being something different than the sort of traditional "hottie" ... young actress. I wanted somebody who was strikingly beautiful in a weird way, in a way that she might not know how beautiful she was, but that it was the type of beauty an older man would see and be drawn to, and that maybe even boys her own age don't yet know how special she is, but there is something there that is really amazing, and that you want to look at.

But I also wanted to cast somebody who felt like a real human being, that never felt like they were this airbrushed Disney version of what a teenage girl looks like. I wanted to feel like she was me — so she needed to be a little normal. She had to have a normal-ish body; she had to have normal-ish features; she couldn't look like a model had stepped off a page. And Bel had all of those qualities. She has these strikingly beautiful eyes that draw you in, that tell you everything you need to know, which are really similar to Phoebe's eyes — which are really similar to my eyes. In some ways, we all have big, intense eyes, and Bel had this face that I just wanted to look at.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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