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Lithium Why Marielle Heller should be your new favorite director

Mar. 5, 2019
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Marielle Heller’s debut film opens with 15-year-old Minnie Goetz thinking to herself, “I had sex today,” then unsuccessfully resisting the urge to smile at the fact. The rest of The Diary of a Teenage Girl only becomes more forthright from that point, but it only took that one line—and that one smile—to cement Heller’s place as one of the most exciting and necessary voices in film today.

In an episode of Indiewire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, Heller shared that Diary is a film she wished was there for her when she was a teenager, and it’s not hard to share her sentiment. At the center of the film is precocious Minnie (played ever so lovingly by Bel Powley), who embarks on a sexual odyssey with her mother’s new boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård). Adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, it is foremost a fearless story of female promiscuity spearheaded by women—women whose experiences grant them a unique ability to approach this kind of narrative with much-needed understanding and empathy. 

On my first viewing, the movie felt sacrilegious, like I was seeing something unnatural or profane. This was a discomfort that surprised me; I very rarely see girls so unapologetic about wanting sex, and frankly, it caught me off guard. In a conversation with fellow directors, Heller agreed that directing is like being naked, and that’s funny because being her audience feels the same way. She puts Minnie’s inner life out in the open, and in its specificity is a familiarity that transcends the screen.

Kristen Wiig and Bel Powley playing mother and daughter on the set of The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Photo from Seattle Times.

The whole film is drenched in rich, warm tones that make it appear like a dated photograph from the ‘70s that has come to life. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why audiences develop an affinity for her protagonist so quickly and effortlessly—watching her feels like flipping through old photo albums. Heller isn’t afraid to push the boundaries of intimacy, however, and there are moments when it feels invasive, like reading someone else’s diary. And in a way, we are—it is called The Diary of a Teenager Girl, after all—but the difference is that the keeper of the diary chose to tell their story in their way, and we just follow along. It’s almost jarring to see Minnie’s story unfold even with the knowledge of its basic premise, but no matter how many times you pause this movie to cringe at her naïveté or to save yourself the discomfort, Heller’s camera persists; she allows Minnie to be a teenage girl, to make these wrong decisions, and to live with their consequences. It’s not a pretty picture, but when was girlhood ever? She allows Minnie to tell her own stories and she listens to them intently and without malice. 

Heller’s cinema is deeply rooted in this very sentiment of letting women tell their stories. Diary, ultimately, is a girl taking control of her own narrative. Throughout the film, the plot is propelled by Minnie’s narration from her audio diary entries; everything is told from her perspective, and we are never unaware of what she’s thinking. This continues in her latest effort, last year’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, an adaptation of the autobiography of infamous biographer and literary forger Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), set in the melancholic streets of New York in the early ‘90s. 

In this way, CYEFM shares the same vein as Diary. Heller has expressed that she is passionate about highlighting voices we don’t hear in movies very often, and Israel, an antihero in her 50s who is blunt and crass and fearing obsolescence, is definitely one of them. “She was a prickly, difficult person, and we wanted to get that right,” she said. “We didn’t wanna soften her.”

Of course, others have expressed doubts about having such an unlikeable character as the lead, and Heller knew exactly why. “Lee was flawed and complicated and fascinating. If she were a male character, nobody would bat an eye, but because she’s female, it feels radical.” she shared with Indiewire. “[People would say,] ’Are you worried about the character being unlikeable?’ If this was a male character, no one would ever ask that.” 

In both of her features, Heller has displayed mastery of depicting the nuance of the female experience. Both Minnie and Lee are imperfect people, and yet they are approached with so much care; their stories are being told not to condemn them, but to listen to them, and try to understand them. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, flawed characters—female ones, especially—would be portrayed with an inevitable tinge of condescension, an undertone of shame. Heller moves past that; her films are never criticisms, but mirrors. 

This is not to say, however, that she dismisses these women’s mistakes. There is a ubiquitous awareness that what they’re doing is wrong, both within the narrative and in the filmmaking, which pays off when they are held accountable for their actions nearing the end of both films. She doesn’t really glorify as much as she allows

Her characters are never put on a pedestal either. The strong female characters I usually see on screen are unblemished and infallible, reinforcing the idea that being strong and being flawed are mutually exclusive. The women I see in media are very rarely ones I recognize from my everyday life, but I found pieces of these women I know and admire in Minnie and Lee. Heller unwraps us from the mythos of the Strong Female Character, undoing its shackles and granting us the ability to find strength in our mania, in our complexity. There is a power in the way she lets women be women, but to an extent, it’s unfortunate—it’s unfortunate that showing women as we are is considered revolutionary, and that she is being commended for her subversion of expectations when in reality women are actually more similar to the antihero we all perceive as the rarity.

The effortless nuance Heller is able to achieve with her protagonists can only come from storytelling that puts characterization above anything else. She shared with The Hollywood Reporter that she is more invested in the emotional foreground of her films more than their technicalities, especially coming from a theater background. Being an actor herself, she is able to speak the actors’ language, therefore accessing a degree of rawness that never fails to resonate.

As a result, her characters are lived-in; they speak in idiolects and move in worlds that move with them. In Diary, Minnie’s thoughts literally come alive as cartoons, embellishing the streets of San Francisco with a whimsy angst that is so distinctly teenaged. The colors of dusty indoor bookshops and old gay bars tell a story in CYEFM, echoing the drab monotony of Lee’s everyday misadventures. Snowfall bookends a failed love; warm, weak light bulbs underline isolation. The stakes are high—technically, CYEFM is a heist movie—but it’s told in whispers, in a story spoken by friends reminiscing. 

We see Monroe (Skarsgård) the way Minnie does in The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

There is a kind of intimacy in her filmmaking that seems almost scandalous, like she’s gained access to your thoughts and is projecting them on screen for everyone to see. She makes audiences feel visible in the rawest yet most empathetic way, and I have trouble looking at her work with a critical eye because I always feel a little drunk when I watch them—it’s like she uses magic to film instead of cameras. I am reminded of a tweet in which a fan told Lorde that her ex had started listening to Melodrama, to which the artist replied, “Cherish the secret world [you] built without him [and] know he’ll never hear it just the way [you] do.” That’s what Heller’s films are: secret worlds, never the same thing twice.

Her films are not only love letters to women, but also to art itself, to time periods, to cities like San Francisco and New York. The entirety of CYEFM was shot on location, featuring some of the bookshops Lee herself sold to in the past, and, most notably, Julius, the oldest gay bar in New York. She points a magnifying glass at the time periods in which her films are set so they feel intimately studied, like characters, but strategically placed in the periphery so as not to feel patronizing or kooky. The peace and love of the ‘70s are portrayed in small scale, in Minnie’s home life, in her mother’s lifestyle, in her best friend. Parties never feel maximalist or done for the sake of nostalgic grandeur because the camera always spends time with Minnie, zeroing in on her amidst the alcohol and the drugs and the sex. The same is accomplished in CYEFM. It is a story of queer people in the ‘90s, and while their queerness is not the main point of the narrative, it is never not part of it. Pertaining to a scene in which Lee is invited to dinner by a bookstore owner, Heller recalls, “I remember getting the note from somebody, ‘Is it clear that they are asking each other out on a date?’ And I was like, ‘No, it’s not clear, and nor should it be clear because that’s what it feels like to be a gay woman in 1991 and not being somebody that wears their sexual orientation on their sleeve—this sort of slightly dancing around the issue.’” 

Heller joins Yorgos Lanthimos, Ryan Coogler, Bradley Cooper, Alfonso Cuaron, and Spike Lee for Directors’ Roundtable. Photo from The Hollywood Reporter.

CYEFM, which is also co-written by a woman (Nicole Holofcener) and co-produced by two women (Amy Nauiokas and Anne Carey), was, deservedly so, part of early awards conversations. McCarthy gives one of the most amazing performances of the year, acting alongside the equally dazzling Grant. Audiences have been waiting for Heller’s next effort ever since her winning Best First Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards in 2016, and they got their due when this film premiered at Telluride Film Festival to stellar critical reception. She was also part of The Hollywood Reporter’s Directors’ Roundtable, joining the likes of Spike Lee, Alfonso Cuarón, and Yorgos Lanthimos. Early award speculations were hinting at the inclusion of more women, especially with Greta Gerwig’s Academy Award nomination last year and the Independent Spirit Awards nominating more women directors than men; a nomination for Heller did not seem so far-fetched. 

But such is the life of a female filmmaker. It pains me incredibly to write this part, because I so desperately wish I could end this love letter to Heller by saying she got what she deserved. On the evening of the Oscar nomination announcements, I was beyond ecstatic to learn of McCarthy’s and Grant’s acting nominations, and hopeful that Heller would be among the list of directors. Needless to say, I was heartbroken. As Grant voiced, “I’m so overwhelmed [by my nomination], but my only real disappointment is that Marielle [Heller] didn’t get nominated for her directing. These performances didn’t come out of the sky and what Marielle accomplished was quite astounding so her being left out was my only real caveat.” 

I quickly went to Heller’s Instagram page after the announcements, and alongside videos of her reacting to her leads’ nominations is a black picture with white block letters saying, “I feel seen. Not snubbed.” And she’s right—she is the only woman director whose lead actress and supporting actor are nominated, and the film’s screenplay also got a nod. I can’t help but ask for more, though; I can’t sit still and plainly accept that while her work is still very much an Oscar-contender, she didn’t get the recognition her film warrants. And I know she’s not the only directorial snub that upset audiences (Bradley Cooper recently expressed disappointment over not getting nominated for A Star Is Born), but somehow, hers feel more weighty; arduous, even. Over the past couple of years the Academy has taken initiative to invite more minorities to become members, thus diversifying their voting body, so it’s been disillusioning to see the same thing continuously happen in their ceremony. My heartbreak over Heller’s snub transcended her; I was reminded that in the Academy’s 92-year history, only five women have been nominated for Best Directing, and only one (Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker) has won. But Heller is optimistic and persistent, so it’s hard not to be as well. “I’ve faced challenges,” she shares. “It was hard to get my first movie made, and I felt that I was pushing a boulder up a hill in a way that my male colleagues didn’t have to. But I also recognize that I’m here because the women before me were fighting the good fight.”

So what’s next for the director? She recently finished shooting A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a Mister Rogers biopic starring Tom Hanks, which is slated for a fall release. She also announced The Case Against 8, a feature-film adaptation of the HBO documentary on the court case that lifted the Californian same-sex marriage ban. Another is Kolma, starring Daisy Ridley as a widow who gets the chance to relive her first love. Heller is showing no sign of slowing down, and I am hopeful audiences and critics alike will finally keep up with her.