The moment I knew that Diary of a Teenage Girl was going to speak to me on a deep, important, possibly spiritual level came right at the opening scene, when 15-year-old Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) walks through a San Francisco park, backpack on her shoulders, bell bottoms a-flaring, her eyes shining, and says, in an exuberant, satisfied voiceover, "I had sex today." She says it so confidently, so uncomplicatedly, in a way that I wish I had been when I was 15. But soon, we learn that Minnie's life isn't quite as uncomplicated as it seems — the person she had sex with, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), is not only 20 years older than she is, but he’s also her mother's boyfriend.
The genius and uniqueness of Diary (directed by 35-year-old Marielle Heller, based on the memoir by Phoebe Gloeckner), however, is that it is messy and avoids the easy moralizing that comes with most movies about teenagers — particularly teenage girls — who have sex. It articulates so many truths about adolescence that will resonate with anyone who was ever 15, whether or not they were a girl, or had sex, or lived in San Francisco in 1976, when Diary takes place. I spoke with 23-year-old Powley by phone about her revolutionary role, how she got the part, and tapping into her own teenage emotions.
The movie gets at something so authentic about being a teenage girl. I feel like I've never seen that on screen before.
Bel Powley: Oh god yeah, me too. I feel like teenage girls on screen that I've seen growing up have been such 2D, flat characters, just there to serve men. Or if they're not, it's kind of like virgin waiting for her Prince Charming. Or it's the opposite end of the spectrum, someone who's like "high school slut." There's no in-between. There's nothing that's at all real. I think that the teenage girls I've seen in movies seem to just breeze through their teenagehood and have these clever answers to everything, and that's just so not how you are when you're a teenager. When you're a teenager, you're just so extreme and overdramatic. And earnest. And you really wear your heart on your sleeve.
That came across in Minnie so well. On the one hand, she's in this very "adult" relationship and situation, but she's still such a teenager and you see that in her behavior. The moment where I was like, this is so real, was when she writes the note to Monroe that says, "You broke up with me because I'm fat."
BP: Yeah. "I know you think I'm fat." [laughs]
I was just like, oh my god, yes, of course she thinks that.
BP: Because when you're a teenager you're so irrational. You're like, oh my god, he broke up with me because I'm fat. That makes complete sense to me. I remember when I was doing the research for this movie, and I was trying to think back to when I was a teenager and I was trying to tap back into those emotions, and I was like, how did I survive those years being so crazy? You're nuts when you're a teenager. It's so tough. It's so emotionally draining.
Did you keep a diary when you were a teenager?
BP: I kept one until I was about 15. Then I stopped. I can't actually remember the reason I stopped — I reckon it was like probably something to do with the growth of internet presence and media presence for young people, like I didn't feel like I needed to anymore, now that I think about it. But it's disappointing. I wish I'd kept one for longer.
What did you draw on when you were doing the research for the character? How did you get into the headspace? Because you're not THAT much older than she is years-wise, but a 23-year-old versus a 15-year-old is, like, completely different.
BP: It was really just kind of what I was saying before: tapping back into that really extreme way of thinking and irrationality. It was even going back to how I walked and held myself differently. I definitely didn't love my body or feel comfortable in my body, so I was probably more awkward and gawky and threw my limbs around in different ways than I do now. Also you speak differently when you're a teenager. You feel like your words are so much more drawn out, and everything's so much more of an effort to say. So it was just like tapping back into very little things. I'm not a Method actor or anything. I don't use my own experience to make me feel certain things in a scene. I come from theater so really for me it's about, like, very meticulous character building. I come from a place where you spend five weeks creating these people and then pretending to be them. It's about rehearsal for me. I spent a lot of time thinking like, What was Minnie like when she was 5, what was she like when she was 10? Or, What happened in this scene that we don't see in the script, what happened in these two days? Like really building a person, so that when I get on set I have a really firm base and everything else and everyone else affects that.
What was it like doing this role being directed by a relatively young female director?
BP: It was perfect. I can't imagine it being anyone else. Mainly because we both were teenagers recently, so we could really tap back into that, you know? We could check in with each other. Did you feel like this? Did you feel like this? How did you lie down in this situation? Like the sex scenes — there were a few times where me and Marielle would be on the floor, like demonstrating to each other what we think I should do physically. I don't think I could have done that if it was a man. So I think that was important.
What was the hardest scene or interaction to kind of figure out?
BP: The whole thing was really challenging. Because I'd never done anything on screen where I was that much the lead. Every other line was mine. I was in every scene. And it really felt like doing a play for 24 days. Often when you're filming you have a bit of time off, you'll have an hour off, or you'll do a scene where you don't really need to concentrate that much. But with this character and this film there was really no place to hide. I really needed to be on all the time. And I couldn't leave any part of Minnie unturned or untouched. I needed to know everything and like every corner and the depths of her. So it was about that — that as a whole was a challenge, making sure that that was all good and in check.
I know it got an 18 certificate in the U.K. [the equivalent of an NC-17 rating in the U.S.], but for teens who do see the movie, what do you hope they take away from it?
BP: There's definitely not a moral to the story, something to be taught. It's not a morality tale. But there are two things that are kind of like takeaways. If you make mistakes, if you sleep with the wrong person, if you do something "bad," the world is not going to implode, you're not going to die, you will grow, you will move on. You will be fine. And also that you need to stay true to yourself as a woman, you need to love yourself as a woman, you need to love the skin you're in because it's the only skin and body that you're going to have for the rest of your life. And just move forward in life and I think you'll be OK.
The lack of moralizing in the movie is really striking. There are so many TV shows and movies where if someone has sex as a teenager, then a bad thing automatically happens. I realized as I was watching the movie that I had been so conditioned to this kind of stuff that I was like, oh she's going to get an STD or she's going to get pregnant.
BP: Oh my god, yeah. And especially with women! Often if women in movies are like promiscuous or "slutty," they're always punished for it in some way. It's so negative. We're so taught as young women that your virginity is this thing that you have to guard and, like, boys are going to try and steal it from you, and if they do, you bleed, and that's pretty awful, and you're really tainted, and it's this whole thing that teaches young women that you're really impure or something. It's really negative.
Another thing that was fascinating watching it from the vantage point of today is how much freedom Minnie has as a 15-year-old. It seems to me that parents today are so much more hovering and mindful of where their kids are.
BP: Because San Francisco was at the forefront of the social and sexual revolution in the '60s, the kids that were born to adults in the '60s, like Minnie's generation, is a really kind of lost generation of children because their parents were so deeply embedded in the free love movement, drug-taking movement, the ageless movement, these huge societal revolutions. These kids were really unparented. So they could do whatever they wanted. So they were doing coke with their parents. For us, making the film, the time period acts as a bit of a buffer for what happens. You're like, oh it's the '70s, sure, 15-year-olds sleep with 35-year-old men all the time. If you made that movie taking place now it would be very different.
In the New York Times, you said after you read the script you felt like you would die if you didn't get the part. Can you bring me back to that moment?
BP: Often in London you'll just tape for movies and send the tape out to Hollywood and be like, is anyone even watching this, anywhere? So I'd read the script and I just related to it so much and was so passionate about this honest portrayal of this young woman that I really felt like I have to go the extra mile, I have to find a way to be in this. I just know that I can do it. At the end of the audition tape, I broke to camera, like just as myself, and I was like, oh hi Marielle Heller, I'm Bel Powley. And these are all the reasons why I relate to this script so much. And told her some quite personal stories. And then was like, please can I have a conversation with you about it? And then obviously she ended up thinking I wasn't crazy.
This interview has been edited and condensed.