The very first scene in the audacious 1970s coming-of-age film “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” reveals Bel Powley’s captivating screen presence.
As the recently sexually awakened Minnie Goetze, a San Francisco teen in a complicated affair with her mother’s 35-year-old boyfriend, Powley floats through Golden Gate Park in her hiked-up bell-bottoms with a look of saucer-eyed triumph.
“I know nothing’s changed, but everything looks totally different to me now,” she says, equal parts girlish delight and worldly wise assurance, a complex tone that Powley sustains throughout the film in which she is in nearly every scene. (It opens Friday at Cinetopia and Glenwood Arts.)
A breakout star when the film premiered at Sundance in January, Powley, 23 (just 21 when the film was shot), has been a veteran of British television and theater since age 13. (She starred in Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” on Broadway.)
Powley spoke by phone from her flat in West London about tapping into “Minnie’s extremities of emotion” and relishing the opportunity to play a girl who is “not 2-D, but unapologetically honest and complicated.”
Despite the film’s R rating (and an equivalent of NC-17 in the United Kingdom), Powley “hopes loads of teen girls sneak into the cinema to see it.”
Q: Your character Minnie owns her sexuality in a way that’s uncommon in films about teenage girls. Is that what drew you to this?
A: I read the script and thought, “I can really relate to how this girl is feeling, especially when it comes to sex.” I remember that feeling of, “Am I a grown-up now?” It was exhilarating, like I’d just been let in on some massive secret. I think this film captures the essence of what it really feels like in your heart to be a teenage girl, the confusion and oscillating between so many different emotions at one time.
People don’t want to discuss girls and sexuality, on film or off, and I really wanted to be a part of starting that conversation.
Since you were born in England in 1992, this whole culture and vibe of San Francisco in the ’70s must have felt very foreign to you. How did you prepare to understand the period?
I listened to a lot of Janis Joplin, really became somewhat obsessed. I got to San Francisco three weeks before we started shooting, and I felt like the whole place, even now, has this laid-back, cool hippie-ish vibe, and you can still really feel that in your city.
Did you have any issues with all the nudity in the film or question it as an early career choice for yourself?
No, not really. I’m not saying I was just like, yeah, and signed on. Of course it was a decision, but the sex, the nudity — it isn’t gratuitous. We decided to be very specific about the moments Minnie would be nude, and to be most nude in nonsexual moments, like when she’s examining herself in the mirror, or she and (her mother’s boyfriend) are having a postcoital argument and she is looking so small and vulnerable.
I know this sounds like such a lie, but I have never once watched it and felt like, “Oh no, I look fat there” or anything. I feel so proud and happy to be showing my real body to young women out there, because that wasn’t something I had when I grew up. I was constantly bombarded by Victoria’s Secret models or rubbish like that, that just makes you feel like crap about yourself. I feel really pleased with it and not scared for it to be out there.