UM prof’s coming-of-age tale hits big screen

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

She was 15 years old and recently kicked out of a girls school when she began a love affair with her mother’s boyfriend, and experimented with drugs.

Now a University of Michigan professor, Phoebe Gloeckner has since penned an acclaimed, graphic novel based on diaries she kept when she was young. That coming-of-age novel — “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” — was turned into a play and staged off-Broadway.

Now it will be on the big screen, with its world premiere Saturday at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

Gloeckner said the story is hers, but could be any girl’s story.

“The (experiences) were such a part of me becoming an individual, and struggles with my past to find a future,” said Gloeckner, an associate professor in the UM Stamps School of Art & Design and also a cartoonist.

When the book was published in 2002, Salon magazine called it “one of the most brutally honest, shocking, tender and beautiful portrayals of growing up female in America.”

The film, set at the dusk of the hippie movement and the dawn of punk rock, stars Kristin Wiig and True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard, along with British newcomer Bel Powley — listed by Paper magazine as one of 10 actors to watch.

It was written and directed by Marielle Heller, a New York-based writer, actor and director. Paper and Variety, another entertainment magazine, listed her as one of 10 directors to watch.

Heller, 35, read Gloeckner’s book years after it came out in 2002 and fell in love with it. She called the publisher the day she finished and told them what she wanted to do with it. She convinced Gloeckner to let her write a play based on the book. It was staged in 2010 off Broadway in New York.

“I had never read or seen anything that felt as honest of a portrayal of being a teenage girl on the emotional rollercoaster of growing up,” Heller said. “Boys have characters they can relate to in movies and literature so they can feel like they are less alone. We have very few characters that feel truthful of that really potent time of being a teenager.”

Gloeckner felt the story needed to be told because a teenage girl’s sexuality is often relegated to fantasy and pornography. But her story, she said, offers a real person behind the intricacies of a young woman’s sexuality.

“A teenage girl’s sexuality is not seen as a complex element of growing up that it is in society,” Gloeckner said. “It’s fantasy. In this book, I was really hoping to give that fantasy of Lolita a voice. And be a person, a full person.”

In the story — based on Gloeckner’s life in San Francisco during the 1970s, when drugs were easily available — the main character experiments with smoking marijuana but then spirals into all kind of other drugs.

“It was a response to feeling like she had any place else to go,” Gloeckner said.

The story ends on a positive note, and the viewer is left with hope that things won’t be so bad in the future.

“The story is about something that is hopefully not a common occurrence in most people’s lives,” Gloeckner said. “There is a lot of the process of becoming who she is. She maneuvers and comes out on the other end. I hope it’s a story about strength and overcoming certain confusion and adversity and discovering what’s right for one’s self, separate from what’s all around you.”

Gunalan Nadarajan, dean of the UM Stamps School of Art & Design, said Gloeckner’s work evolved from literature to stage to big screen because it is intimate, yet universal and ultimately redemptive.

“The novel is brutally honest and makes public very private struggles of a young person,” Nadarajan said. “Since these topics are not often discussed, this story has resonated with young people. It also resonates with all of us who have grown up with varying levels of difficulties to cope with and personal tragedies.”