In “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” 15-year-old Minnie has an affair with her mother’s 30-something boyfriend, and revels in her sexuality.
Wwriter-director Marielle Heller doesn’t pass judgment. She wants to show how it feels to be a teenage girl, case closed. Her movie is a brave, truthful, sensitive, sophisticated and funny look at the female side of the horror and joy straits called adolescence.
Adapting Phoebe Gloeckner’s illustrated novel, Heller makes an impressive big-screen debut with this seriocomic adventure through the life and head of Minnie Goetze (played by British actress Bel Powley). The setting is San Francisco, 1976. The Patty Hearst trial, punk rock and EST are happening.
Heller wastes no time.
“I had sex today,” teenage Minnie announces in voiceover in the opening scene. She smiles proudly.
Speaking into a tape recorder as part of an aural diary, Minnie reveals that she has lost her virginity to Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), the 35ish boyfriend of her party-girl mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig).
Minnie initiated the affair, but weak-willed Monroe rolled with it. The relationship continues under Charlotte’s nose.
The experience sends Minnie into a whirl of terror, experimentation and elation. Minnie and best friend Kimmie (Madeleine Waters) engage in outrageous sexcapades.
As she stumbles, rebounds, and plunges into uncertainty Minnie slowly realizes who she is and what she wants. She begins to assume more power in her relationship with Monroe.
She also ascends artistically, as a cartoonist.
Heller doesn’t take the Minnie-Monroe relationship anywhere deep or surprising. We know it will end traumatically.
But she combines the ripples, bumps, and occasional blows that make up Minnie’s journey into an exhilarating rush of adolescent messiness. She also delivers an observant, affecting picture of a girl developing into a woman, both universal and San Francisco-specific.
By not presenting Minnie and Monroe as victim and predator, Heller allows us to size up these characters through our own moral sieves _ a more satisfying approach.
Heller astutely understands teenage girls’ insecurities and desires, whether Minnie is worrying nobody will love her or getting dirty with an Iggy Pop poster.
“I want a body pressed up next to me, just to know that I’m really here,” says Minnie, and the saucer-eyed Powley, who was 21 when the film was shot, splendidly conveys such teen-girl sentiments. She beautifully portrays Minnie’s transformation.
Skarsgard’s Monroe efficiently exemplifies the dangers of passivity, while Wiig brings something sad to Charlotte, who has experienced the sexual revolution but has yet to be shaped by feminism.
Animated episodes amusingly reflect Minnie’s inner thoughts.
The film also features a former stepdad (Christopher Meloni) and a younger sister (Abby Wait). Real-life cartoonist Aline Kominsky pops up in animated form.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Starring Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgard, Kristen Wiig, Madeleine Waters.
Written and directed by Marielle Heller
Running time 1 hour, 41 minutes