Day 3: The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Slow West, and more

Alexander Skarsgård prior to the premiere of “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.” ©Sundance Institute | Jonathan Hickerson

Sundance Institute is dispatching its writers to daily screenings and events to capture the 10 days of festivities during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Check back each morning for roundups from the previous day’s events.


The Diary of a Teenage Girl 

by Jeremy Kinser

While introducing The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, David Courier prepared the audience to meet two striking new talents. The Festival’s senior programmer noted that he was honored to have Marielle Heller, a veteran of the Sundance Institute Screenwriters and Directors Labs, return with her debut feature, and predicted actress Bel Powley’s future is “so bright that we’re going to be seeing her work here for years to come.”

This wasn’t typical pre-screening hyperbole. The film, based on a graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, is indeed a remarkable debut for both Heller and Powley, a British actress who carries the film with complete assurance, as well as a faultless American accent. Powley stars as Minnie, a lonely, precocious 15-year-old in 1976 San Francisco who finds the attention she yearns for through sex with Monroe, the 35-year-old boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård) of her drug-using mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig). Minnie creates a diary of sorts to document her secret affair using expressive illustrations and brutally honest messages spoken into her tape recorder. 

“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”

Heller’s film has the hazy look of a faded 1970s Polaroid and she unobtrusively integrates animation, some of it based on Minnie’s drawings and others inspired by the comic books she reads. The director said she found Gloeckner’s book to be a revelation. “I never encountered such an honest portrayal of a teenage girl,” she told that audience. “I found her to be so vulnerable and brave and funny and embarrassing and smart and exciting.”

The film received sustained applause after the screening ended, and many in the audience were curious how Heller found her perfectly-cast leading lady. “Bel submitted an audition tape from England and did her whole audition with an American accent and I didn’t realize she was British until the end when she delivered a personal message to me,” Heller said. 

Powley said the whole experience was incredible and she was overwhelmed by the response. “I read the script and I’d never read anything like it,” she shared. “It was something I related to in so many ways. I thought I have to be in this.”

Skarsgård, who achieves a small miracle here by making his character extremely likable and surprisingly uncreepy, explained how he developed such chemistry with his young co-star. “We had three weeks in San Francisco before Kristen joined us so we rehearsed,” he revealed. “We shot our scenes first and I think they went pretty good because when Kristin got there we had a secret.”

Slow West

by Eric Hynes

The Western may be among the most American of genres—if not the most American of genres—but that has never stopped filmmakers from around the world, from Italy to Japan and beyond, from trying it on for size. In Slow West, which premiered on Saturday night at the MARC Theater as part of the World Dramatic Competition, English writer-director John Maclean doesn’t transpose the genre to Europe—he brings a European sensibility to the American West. Considering the preponderance of immigrants who migrated to and settled in America, it wasn’t exactly a crazy notion. “The more I read about it, the more I realized the Germans, Scandinavians and Africans” were everywhere in the Old West, and fundamental to the formation of the country. “I did want to make sort of the truest western,” he said, wryly.

Caren Pistorius at the premiere of “Slow West.”
©Sundance Institute | Stephen Speckman

The film stands out not only because of its European influences—Maclean chose a 1:66 aspect ratio rather than the familiarly epic widescreen scope to offer a less operatic, more European arthouse aesthetic—but thanks to a unique tonal approach. “Once upon a time, 1870 to be exact,” is how the film starts, and an air of storybook wonder is maintained—although so is a wicked gallows humor and pistol-packed violence. An innocent young Scottish man named Jay Cavendish, played by Kodi-Smit McPhee, travels westward in search of his lost love, Rose (Caren Pistorius), and is befriended by a bounty hunter played by Michael Fassbender who, unbeknownst to Jay, also has the fugitive Rose in his sights. “The way I approached this was a mixture of realism and a kind of fairytale. I wanted it to be authentic but also kind of like a dream,” Maclean said. “I hoped it would be sort of funny and sad—sometimes at the same time.”

While Fassbender was absent from the post-screening discussion—he’s on location filming the Steve Jobs biopic, and sent along a greeting—Pistorius and McPhee were joined by supporting star Ben Mendelsohn, who was outfitted in the hugely shaggy fur coat worn by his outlaw character in the film. Without giving too much away, by the end of the film a great number of the characters are snuffed out, stars included, and at the end of the film Maclean makes the uncommon choice to revisit and, to some degree, pay respect to the scenes of carnage.

“When I was writing [the film] there were some 80s Eddie Murphy films on the telly,” he recalled, stifling a laugh. “And there were security guards getting blasted by the goodies, and then after [we’re] not having a second thought about it. So I just wanted to pay tribute to people that died making this journey.” And with that he perfectly evoked the wry humor of his film, its blend of pathos and parody, horror and hilarity.

Power of story: serious ladies

The fascinating range of three-dimensional female characters on film and television these days suggest a sea change in the cultural zeitgeist. They’re smart, sexual, funny, and flawed; they upend expectations, thwart our sympathies, and complicate the way we talk about gender roles.

At yesterday’s Power of Story: Serious Ladies panel, fearless storytellers Lena Dunham (Girls), Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project, The Office), Jenji Kohan (Orange Is the New Black, Weeds) and Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids, Saturday Night Live) joined New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum for a discussion surrounding antiheroes and archetypes, using humor to crash through boundaries, and how far their art will go to tell the truth. ​Watch the entire event below.

And a special thank you to LUNA Bar for sponsoring this Power of Story panel and for their tireless work supporting up-and-coming female directors through LUNAFEST – their traveling festival of short films by, for, and about women.

Hot Girls Wanted 

by Eric Hynes

For their last film, Sexy Baby, co-directors Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus chronicled the effect of pornography and social media on young girls. And in order to educate themselves about the subject, “we watched a lot of online porn,” confessed Gradus. “And we just had this burning question: who are all of these girls that are populating these sites?” That question led to their current film, Hot Girls Wanted, which had its world premiere on Saturday at the Temple Theater.

In Hot Girls Wanted, we meet numerous young girls, most just past 18 and straight from their childhood homes, living in a house in Miami, Florida, where a young man named Riley sets them up on pornographic film shoots. They make good money and thrill to the sudden independence it affords, and dream of fame and social media popularity. But they’re also thrust into increasingly intense and degrading situations, and rarely last more than a few months in the business. 

Subjects and filmmakers of “Hot GIrls Wanted.”
©Sundance Institute | Azikiwe Aboagye

According to Ronna, the answer to their initial question shocked them. “These girls look like the girl next door and they literally are the girl next door,” she said during the post-screening Q&A. “We were not expecting that, and we were not expecting that they would all be so smart and frankly quite innocent and bright eyed, and just good kids that were in search of an adventure. And you can get that now with one click of a mouse and being impulsive.” 

By the conclusion of Hot Girls Wanted, Tressa Silguero, one of the subjects of the film, is persuaded to leave porn by her boyfriend Kendall, and they were both on hand to support the film. She talked of how mass and social media make the life of a porn star seem like an appealing choice for women searching for a way forward. “It’s more appealing for young women my age. It’s like, oh I want to be like her, she gets so many views. Everybody loves her,” she said. “Obviously pop culture is a huge factor in these girls lives,” agreed Bauer.  

They were joined after the screening by Rashida Jones, who served as one of the film’s producers. Bauer explained how the actress became involved, and encouraged the directors to shape the material into something that links the stories of these women’s lives with the hyper-sexualized culture that influences them, something that could make the most impact. “Basically we had this little story, and she paid attention to it and to us, and she really loved it,” Bauer said. “And she said guys, I really want this to be the film about pornography, the honest film about pornography. So let’s make it bigger.”

10 Days of Independence

We’re celebrating 10 Days of Independence at the Sundance Film Festival with 10 Sundance Institute Members. Check the Daily Roundup to meet a new member each day and find out what they’re here to see, what they’re talking about and what Sundance film character they want to compete against in a dance-off. Most likely, you’ll find them to be a reflection of the organization they support  – independent and inspiring.

You can celebrate 10 Days of Independence too. Join Sundance Institute today at Today’s member of the day is Liz T. from Yarrow Pt, Washington.

Sundance Member Liz T.

What are you excited to see?


Which Sundance filmmaker would you hope to share a shuttle with?

Lynne Shelton

What’s your favorite Sundance movie?

Another Earth

Why are you a Sundance member?

The Festival makes me feel happy. I’ve been 12 times and love every minute I am at the Festival. This year, I decided to become a member because I want to support those artists and directors who make films for the Festival. I personally can’t imagine how they do it, but given how happy they make me, I am glad to support them.

Which favorite Sundance film character would you want to compete against in a dance-off?

Brendan Gleason from The Guard.

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