There is very little of Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl that feels conventional. Set in the 1970s, this coming-of-age film stars Bel Powley as a sexually curious teenager who learns about her desires through a relationship with her mother’s boyfriend (played by Alexander Skarsgard).
The film is fresh, thoughtful and, at times, revolutionary in its treatment of its protagonist, specifically, and female sexuality, generally. It’s no wonder that first-time filmmaker Heller had some unconventional inspirations as her guide when she transformed Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel into the must-see indie film of the summer. Here are five films that had an impact on Heller’s work.
1. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
John Cameron Mitchell’s transsexual masterpiece is a study in how to incorporate different media into one film as a method to explore sexuality. Heller looked to it as a guide for mixing animation and music into her film. “I wanted Diary to be a visual feat,” she says. “I always felt like Hedwig was such an ambitious film and also so emotionally resonant.”
2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Heller found herself thinking about the Michel Gondry film when she began experimenting with non-linear storytelling. “I always thought of Diary as a memory film where it’s almost all being recalled and things flow from one thought to another, the way teenagers’ minds would think. Eternal Sunshine pulled that off too.” The film also served as a touchstone in how Heller approached the practical effects in the movie. “All the cool, practical effects in that film felt like they were done in a homemade, real way,” she says. “I wanted that same practical, cardboard feel to everything.”
3. Lovely and Amazing (2001)
Nicole Holofcener’s film guided Heller as she was grappling with how to deal with nudity in her film. She was particularly inspired by the Emily Mortimer scene when she stands naked in front of her current partner and asks him to critique her body. “I just remember feeling like that was one of the ballsiest and most realistic nude scenes I had ever seen,” says Heller. “Nudity is very important in a movie about a girl’s burgeoning sexuality. I didn’t want to pull back from that, but I also didn’t want to be gratuitous or over-sexualize my lead character. I always related it to that scene in Lovely and Amazing.”
4. Stand by Me (1986)
Rob Reiner’s coming-of-age dramedy about four boys that find a dead body has stuck with Heller since she was a child — a film that resonated because it treated adolescence with respect. “The boys in that movie were sensitive and funny and weird and all the things I relate to. They are going through such complex emotions and such real situations and there is no talking down to or pulling punches,” she says. “I think it’s now time for it to be alright for boys to relate to female protagonists because it’s been the other way around for so long.”
5. Harold and Maude (1971)
Heller has always loved the Hal Ashby classic for how it made her feel, while also being an excellent representation of the 1970s. “You leave that film with such a sense of wonder about life, a sense of hope and sadness at the same time,” she says. “I hope people feel the same way when they finish watching Diary. That is makes you feel like humans are interesting and complicated and sad and curious and fascinating. And you want to watch it again.”
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is playing in limited release.