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Film

Five films that influenced director Marielle Heller

American director, writer, and actress Marielle Heller released her debut feature, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, back in 2015 to much critical acclaim. Both equally brutal and comedic, the film follows a fifteen-year-old aspiring cartoonist desperate to lose her virginity. After a series of sexual encounters, the young Minnie begins an affair with her mother’s thirty-five-year-old boyfriend. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is often uncomfortable and intense, yet Heller states that her films aim to “talk about something that people are uncomfortable talking about.”

Her follow up film was 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? starring Melissa McCarthy and inspired by Lee Israel’s confessional memoir that admits to forging letters from famous writers to regenerate her own failed writing career. The film was rather successful, earning McCarthy an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, Richard E. Grant a Best Supporting Actor nomination, as well as a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Yet again, Heller demonstrated her impressive ability to tell serious stories with humour and complexity simultaneously.

Heller’s most recent feature is A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, starring Tom Hanks as children’s television presenter Fred Rogers and Matthew Rhys as Lloyd Vogel, an Esquire journalist assigned to write a profile on the star. In line with Heller’s previous releases, the film was critically acclaimed, with Time magazine labelling it one of the top ten films of 2019. Hanks was nominated for an Academy Award and BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor, and the film managed to gross $4.5 million at the box office on its opening day.

The director’s love for cinema is clear, with The Diary of a Teenage Girl perfectly encapsulating the 70s with the charm of a coming of age film from that period. Her earliest memory of cinema is watching E.T., which she described as “chang[ing] my whole sense of what was possible in the world.” Another important film for her is Tommy Wiseau’s controversial The Room, which she says has become a massive inside joke between herself and her family. However, the list that follows are some films that directly inspired her debut feature, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, from 80s teen classics to romantic sci-fi.

5 films that influenced Marielle Heller:

The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985)

Classic teen comedy The Breakfast Club was unsurprisingly a major influence on Marielle Heller’s own coming-of-age comedy. Discussing her own film, she said that “there really hasn’t been [a film] about girls that I really connected to, which is why I felt like I wanted to make this movie.” Coming-of-age films up until the noughties so rarely focused on girls, and especially not their sexuality. She cites films such as American Pie and other male-centric sex comedies as making her feel like an outsider.

However, John Hughes’ films, from The Breakfast Club to Sixteen Candles, although rather dated by today’s standards, really resonated with Heller growing up. She stated that “John Hughes really respects his characters, and they’re given their emotional weight. He does so even with kids, but especially with teenagers.” It is clear that this inspired Heller’s treatment of protagonist Minnie, who is fantastically and complexly developed as she comes to explore her overwhelming sexual urges.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michael Gondry, 2004)

Heller was inspired by the non-linearity and practical effects of Michael Gondry’s stunning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind when creating her debut, stating that they allowed the film to “be a little magical and different.” The use of practical effects in Gondry’s film, which includes rain coming down on the characters in the middle of the living room, or the pair appearing in the kitchen sink, as though it can suddenly fit two grown adults, is distinctly more surreal than the use of effects in Heller’s film.

However, they inspired the director to include elements of animation to bring Minnie’s desires to life; Heller said that “it was a crucial part of the story that we added in this artistic element in order to show her talent and in order to get to know her creative mind.” Not only this but Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s focus on memory was a huge inspiration for The Diary of a Teenage Girl, with Heller stating that she thinks of “the whole film as taking place in Minnie’s mind, and sort of being a big memory all strung together with non-realistic pieces woven in.”

Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971)

Hal Ashby’s age-gap dark comedy-drama, which focuses on the relationship between a nineteen-year-old boy and a seventy-nine-year-old woman, Harold and Maude, served as a big inspiration to Heller’s similar exploration of a teenager in love with a much older adult. Both films draw parallels outside of the obvious thematic ones, such as being located in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1970s. Thus, Heller looked at the film for visual inspiration, not just thematic.

Heller’s desire when filming The Diary of a Teenage Girl was to “do what felt like a real version of the ’70s, and not a costume party version,” which she certainty managed to achieve. Just as Heller’s love for John Hughes movies stems from the fact that the teenagers are treated with respect, she shared a similar statement when discussing Harold and Maude, explaining that “it feels like the character of Harold is treated with such respect, and that was also something that I wanted to also accomplish with Diary.”

Lovely and Amazing (Nicole Holofcener, 2001)

Perhaps the least well-known film on the list, but just as influential for Heller as the rest, Nicole Holofcener’s comedy-drama Lovely and Amazing was an important point of reference when filming the nude scenes of The Diary of a Teenage Girl. The film focuses on the personal insecurities of a woman and her daughters, each dramatically affected by them. The director served as one of Heller’s mentors at the Sundance Labs, where she workshopped the script for her debut, citing Holofcener as a role model figure.

Talking about the film, Heller says: “I love Lovely and Amazing. It was something that I thought about with this film because the way she treats the female body was something I was conscious of with this film too.” Despite Diary focusing on a girl of just fifteen years old, she is seen naked at many moments in the film (although she was played by Bell Powley, who was around twenty-three at the time). Heller was conscious of how she portrayed this, explaining that “I wanted most of the nudity in the film to be in non-sexual situations and non-sexual scenes, so we see the most nudity when Minnie’s just examining her body in the mirror. I think that’s a really universal thing, and I really didn’t want to be gratuitous or exploitative with my actress.”

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)

John Cameron Mitchell wrote, directed, and starred in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a musical comedy-drama that follows Hedwig, an East German rock singer whose botched gender reassignment surgery, leaving her with one inch of flesh between her legs, gives the film its title. The film documents Hedwig and her backing band as Hedwig’s former lover Tommy steals her music to make it big himself.

Although not drawing obvious parallels with The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Heller states that “I remember feeling like it was such a brave and scary and awesome movie, and it was so ambitious. I felt really connected to it emotionally.” Hedwig and the Angry Inch’s bravery undoubtedly inspired Heller’s debut, proving that something real and confusing, such as gender identity, can be portrayed with comedy whilst also being equally powerful and courageous, which is reflected in Heller’s depiction of teenage sexuality.