Incisive, adventurous, bawdy, and ferociously honest, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is an uncompromising examination of the voyage into womanhood; a non-judgmental story of life-altering sexual experience that’s both specific and universal; and an unconventional, non-sanitized portrayal of hormonal bloodbath. Refreshingly attuned to the self-doubt, turmoil, and voracious appetite that defines adolescence, it’s a difficult and rewarding indie film stuffed with bitter truth.
The story surrounding The Diary of a Teenage Girl is almost as staggeringly reductive as its title: a 15-year-old artist (Bel Powley) living in 1970s San Francisco enters into an affair with her mother’s boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård). Yet like the title, there’s a wonderful simplicity, an embrace of the common, that breathes life into its wooden-on-paper premise. There’s also the perturbing mother-daughter dynamics of Thirteen and the convoluted lead relationship of Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank.
The character of Minnie Goetze came to light in 2002, when author/artist Phoebe Gloeckner published her semi-autobiographical graphic novel, The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures. The novel, which chronicles Minnie’s sexual awakening in unsparing terms, was enthusiastically received and adapted by first-time writer-director Marielle Heller. In keeping with the source material, Heller, in her acutely sensitive, audaciously authentic debut, plumbs the depths of teenage female sexuality more fearlessly than most before her.
The borderline pedophilic overtones are subverted at every turn by the confidence of the direction, the Polaroid palette and glam soundtrack, and the sheer brio of the performances. Kristin Wiig (Bridesmaids, Her, The Skeleton Twins) and Christopher Meloni give surprising turns as mother and father, and Wiig especially demonstrates her ever-increasing comedic range as the bohemian, drug-smoking, irresponsible parental figure. As Monroe, the “handsomest man in the world,” Skarsgård (Melancholia) is droll, selfish, charming, and beautifully flawed, keeping pace with his virgin co-star.
But British newcomer Powley takes this film by the balls from the moment she struts onscreen and rides it until the very end. It’s likely to be the breakout performance of the year, on par with Carey Mulligan’s similarly-toned role as Jenny in An Education. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is spliced with terrific animated Crumb-like interludes that give creative expression to Minnie’s inner dialogues. And where those conceptual moments fly over our heads, there’s always Powley’s blatant voiceovers – insecure, forthcoming, whiny, dripping with self-absorption and dawning self-respect – blared into the microphone of a Bell & Howell tape recorder hidden under her bed.
Beyond its immediate influencers, The Diary of a Teenage Girl has a valiant sense of how thoroughly sex courses through the veins, dominates the thoughts, and impacts the decisions of girls like Minnie. It doesn’t shy away from its graphic excesses, nor does it revel in them. Minnie’s wild sexual explorations, including blow jobs and an impulsive threesome, are worthy of Lolita transcribed in and transported to an alternate world, that of 1970s California. Heller incorporates a bathtub scene that must be a direct tribute to the luscious Palme d’Or winner Blue Is the Warmest Color; it’s perhaps no coincidence that Monroe’s favourite colour is blue.
Like its themes and content, Heller’s dialogue is remarkably frank: “I had sex today. Holy shit”; “Sometimes I look in the mirror and I can’t believe what I see”; “I just want to be touched. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” By bringing those thoughts into the open, by placing them in the mouth of a girl that so effectively represents the youth of today, Heller and Powley assist in giving voice to the unassailable, in making everyone feel a little less freakish because of their desire.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is the rare Sundance film that deserves acclaim from critics and audiences. Heller, in setting out to make an indelible, and indelibly feminine, coming-of-age film, has basically pulled it off. By the closing credits, one can almost picture the novice Heller giving many of her male colleagues a firm handshake and saying, “I’m better than you, you son-of-a-bitch.” And she’d be right.