Marielle Heller on the sexual exploration of “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”

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The Diary of a Teenage Girl is now open in theaters nationwide and has been receiving all kinds of accolades since its premiere at Sundance in January. Director Marielle Heller adapted the film from Phoebe Gloeckner‘s novel of the same name, and both incarnations include queer elements, specifically 15-year-old protagonist Minnie’s relationship with an older girl named Tabitha.

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Minnie (played expertly in the movie by Bel Powley) is discovering she’s a sexual being. It’s San Francisco in the 1970s, and she lives with her free-spirited mom (Kristen Wiig), who encourages Minnie to use the power she has as a woman to get what she wants from men. Minnie loses her virginity to her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), and begins exploring sex and love and intimacy as teenagers do. This includes her fascination with Tabitha (Margarita Levieva), and also a threesome with her best friend Kimmie (Madeleine Waters). 

We spoke with Marielle about The Diary of a Teenage Girl and including the same-sex relationship among the other heterosexual ones Minnie becomes involved in throughout the film.

AfterEllen.com: Minnie doesn’t really talk about her bisexuality in the film; she just kind of explores it. I know it was part of the book, but how did you decide to include that aspect?

Marielle Heller: Yeah, it was part of the original book—this very intense relationship she has with this girl—and I think it spoke to what felt like the universality of a teenager who is wanting love, and she’s kind of wanting that from anywhere she can get it and wanting attention and, I think, in an exploring phase in her life. And so she kind of goes through a lot of hard times when it comes to men and, in this case, I think sort of explores what it would be like to be with a girl—whether that’s different, whether it’s going to be as painful or hard—and recognizes it comes with just as many challenges as being with men. So, yeah, I guess I didn’t really think about it in terms of a subject matter I wanted to explore. It was much more character-driven and it just felt right that she’s so seeking love from external sources and kind of tries everything, a little bit.

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AE: Minnie first meets Tabitha at the Rocky Horror Picture Show and she seems to have this first moment where she sees that she could be attracted to a woman. Before she finds out that Tabitha is a bad influence, she is attracted to her, genuinely.

MH: Oh, genuinely totally attracted to her. She’s this super powerful, fascinating, kind of terrifying girl who is so beautiful and seems to possess many things Minnie wishes she could posses in terms of her sense of self and all of that. So yeah, she’s totally drawn in by her. It’s a really electrifying moment for her to suddenly realize, “Oh, maybe I could love a girl. What would that be like? Maybe I could be loved by a girl. Maybe she would really see me for me.” It begins as a very invigorating, liberating moment for Minnie where she’s sort of breaking free from a really difficult relationship by sort of diving into this other relationship which ends up being just as destructive in many ways.

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AE: So many of the reviews and discussions of the film focus on Minnie’s relationship with her mother’s boyfriend. Have you heard any conversation around the bisexual aspect and Minnie’s dating a girl?

MH: I think it really hasn’t come up as much as I would think it would have come up. Maybe by that point in the movie, people are a little desensitized or something, or they’re still so focused on the relationship with her mother’s boyfriend that they can’t get past it. I don’t know. It’s come up less in my conversations, for sure, and I think it’s a really interesting dynamic and relationship, and one that was very prevalent in Phoebe’s book, too. It’s a very important part of her story in the book, and yeah, it was important to me that it stayed in because this isn’t just a movie about a girl’s relationship with one guy; it’s about a girl’s relationship with her sexuality and that’s a journey that’s not about one person.

 

AE: Minnie also has a relationship with her best friend, Kimmie, that turns sexual when they have a threesome with Monroe. It’s a friendship that is close to what a lot of young women have, but that we don’t often see on screen. The physicality comes in, though, for a moment of titillation more than attraction.  What was the importance of that relationship for you?

MH: I think that’s exactly the difference between the two relationships that she has with women in the movie. She has this pseudo-sexual relationship with her best friend that really is for a guy, where they end up having a threesome but it’s really them kind of exploring that for his sake. And then she ends up having this experience that’s really for her own experience. And so she is kind of trying on all these different forms of sexuality and exploring her own comfort zones, and what is for her and what is for somebody else. I think it’s a very complex moment she goes through with her best friend, with Kimmie, where they end up falling into a threesome and she has a lot of regret about it in the morning, because feelings of jealousy and possessiveness kind of take over the next day when she realizes what she’s done. It’s not something that was well-thought out, necessarily, as a lot of her actions aren’t, as I think a lot of us experienced when we were teenagers. We didn’t necessarily think through our choices until afterward.

But yeah, she runs the spectrum. She’s kind of explored men who are older than her—that’s where it begins—then boys her own age and that doesn’t work out so well–they’re way too immature. She explores girls and, ultimately, through all of this exploration, it really comes down to her relationship with herself, and trying to get to know herself better. So, in some ways, all these other people she’s encountering and exploring is all just a means to an end, and the end is really her getting to know her own self and her own sexuality.

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AE: I really loved how the sex scene with Minnie and Tabitha was done. It doesn’t feel gratuitous at all. It feels completely natural. I’ve just seen a lot of bad lesbian sex scenes. [laughs] It was very good! So what was it like to write and direct that?

MH: I hoped to approach all of the sex scenes from the female perspective and to be not gratuitous or exploitative of the actresses who are in the scenes. I think often we’re kind of force-fed sex scenes in movies that are supposed to be titillating to a male audience and a male gaze, and that was not the intention of any of these sex scenes. So, I guess it was just always coming from that place and the emotional place of where Minnie is in the moment, and trying to be really honoring her and her experience. This is a particular moment that is really kind of hot and she’s really feeling her power sexually, and that’s what I wanted this scene to explore. Margarita Levieva is an incredibly beautiful and powerful actress. She’s kind of terrifyingly sexy, so it was pretty easy and great for that scene. Phoebe, who wrote the book, really approved. She said, “She’s the perfect Tabitha.” She created that character for her book, so she said “She has to be basically so sexy that you’re just absolutely drawn to her,” and that’s how Margarita is, for sure.

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AE: Have you heard from a lot of queer people that have seen the film, and do they have different reactions than straight audiences?

MH: I have had very positive reactions from the queer community, I feel like. I’ve been really pleased by how many young gay boys have really loved the film. I think there’s something that speaks to them that I didn’t necessarily anticipate but kind of makes a lot of sense to me. I think Minnie is a really relatable character who is going though sexual experiences that a lot of men and women went through when they were a teenager, when you’re kind of figuring out who you are and who you’re interested in and what you want; what your sexuality is. So, I never intended that, but I’ve been really pleased by the range of people who say “I feel like I relate to this girl.” 

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is now in theaters nationwide.

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