While introducing The Diary of a Teenage Girl at the Sundance Film Festival, senior programmer David Courier prepared the audience to meet two striking new talents. He noted that he was honored to have Marielle Heller, an alum 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.
Bel [Powley] 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.
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.
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 said. “I found her to be so vulnerable and brave and funny and embarrassing and smart and exciting.”
At its Park City premiere, 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 said. “We shot our scenes first, and I think they went pretty good because when Kristen got there, we had a secret.”