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Movie review: Performances ring true in powerful ‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’

“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” stars Bel Powley, left, and Kristen Wiig.
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” stars Bel Powley, left, and Kristen Wiig. Sony Pictures Classics

It is 1976, the year of harvest gold and avocado green wallpaper and cowl-neck sweaters as massive and ever-present as the TV coverage of the Patty Hearst abduction. Minnie Goetze, a San Francisco 15-year-old portrayed by the remarkable British actress Bel Powley, sits on a sofa next to the boyfriend of her mother (note-perfect Kristen Wiig), a party girl foremost and a nominal, occasional mother secondarily.

We hear Minnie’s thoughts on the soundtrack. She wonders if Monroe, the boyfriend played with a shrewd mixture of geniality and calculation by Alexander Skarsgard, has lightly brushed her breast with his forearm by accident, or not. Minnie’s heart races. Her thoughts are driven by sex and the known unknowns, and losing her virginity, and what lies in store for her.

Monroe (predator? pedophile? a weasel, certainly) becomes Minnie’s lover early in the tumultuous, alarming and often alarmingly funny events of the new film “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.” The subject matter will prevent some people from seeing it, I suppose. Minnie’s libido sets the tone for the movie; both are charged with serious, unpredictable, vibrantly observant energy.

As a culture we prefer our painful coming-of-age stories relatively painless. Sex sells, but in the movies it’s usually selling some sort of lie, either seductive or soothing, and with depressing regularity it’s all about the boys chasing after variously objectified body parts attached to women. Movies concerned with the life, the mind, the body and the dawning self-respect of a 15-year-old girl running every sort of risk … these are rare. “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is one of them, and it’s terrific.

It’s also a formidable feature film debut from writer-director Marielle Heller, adapting Phoebe Gloeckner’s unflinching graphic novel/comix/diary hybrid. In the book Gloeckner’s alter ego, Minnie, car-crashed her way through even more encounters than the film accommodates in its barreling 101 minutes. Heller’s adaptation sands down a few edges. But only a few.

“I want a body pressed up next to me, just to know that I’m really here,” Minnie confesses at one point. Her diary becomes a secret account of her time with Monroe. The secret cannot stay hidden, though, and once it’s out, the movie is far from over. So much in this girl’s life conspires to strand her emotionally. She and her sister, Gretel (splendidly deadpan Abby Wait), raise themselves while mom is snorting cocaine and dropping in for the occasional (and truly loving) spontaneous dance party with her girls. Heller refuses to moralize; the behavior, and its consequences, are there for us to process ourselves.

Every performance is good and true, but the movie truly needed a spectacular Minnie, which it got. Powley was 21 at the time of filming, but she’s a wholly convincing young teen. Every feeling is heightened; each new round of intercourse with Monroe, or bull session with her best friend (Madeleine Waters), is either an expression of her desires or a respite from the confusion of her life. The film is harsh, but wonderful. It shouldn’t be funny, too, but somehow it is, and somehow it’s the right kind of funny.

Movies about teenage girls and older men tend to be civilized, restrained affairs, often from England, such as “An Education” (2009). The closest tonal equivalent to “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is actually an American play from 1997: Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive,” about author Vogel’s authorial stand-in and her incestuous relationship with her uncle. That play, like this film, had the unsettling nerve to scramble and complicate audience sympathies as it told its story out of chronological order, in a wild variety of moods and styles.

Gloeckner found her imaginative outlet in the Bay Area comix scene, with the support of Robert Crumb and Gloeckner’s favorite cartoonist, Aline Kominsky, who appears in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” in animated sequences as Minnie’s muse and sounding board. “Nobody loves me,” Minnie says to her. “Maybe I should kill myself.” Kominsky’s reply is an emblem for this clear-eyed depiction of people living in a moral blur: “No. Alienation is good for the art.”

The Diary Of A Teenage Girl

Cast: Bel Powley; Kristen Wiig, Abby Wait,Alexander Skarsgard

Director: Marielle Heller

101 minutes

Rated R (for strong sexual content including dialogue, graphic nudity, drug use, language and drinking-all involving teens)

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