The Diary of a Teenage Girl
by Donna Kelly
Based on the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a coming-of-age comedy/drama written and directed by Marielle Heller. Set in 1970s San Francisco, it follows the story of Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley), a 15-year old girl who enters into an affair with her mother’s 34 year-old boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård).
Challenging, edgy and controversial, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a film about sexual awakening and the crossroads between female adolescence and womanhood. The narrative is told from the perspective of 15-year old Minnie who details her experiences on audio cassette, which forms the narrative voiceover of the film. Set against the backdrop of the west coast hippie and feminist movement, Minnie’s mother Charlotte shows her daughter little love and affection and seems more intent on getting drunk and high on drugs. Minnie longs to be loved and touched so when her mum’s boyfriend invites her for a drink, Minnie’s hormones being to rage, and despite Monroe being two decades her senior, the pair begin an illicit and illegal affair.
While there are plenty of indie films that deal with sexual experimentation and the journey from adolescence to adulthood, Diary certainly pushes the limits when it comes to exploring unchecked sexual desires. While actress Bel Powley is in her twenties, there’s no getting away from the fact that she’s playing a 15-year old having sex with a much older man. The film is full of sex and drugs (including sex with strangers, group sex and even bouts of prostitution) all of which show Powley in varying states of undress, and while the scenes are done with respect, it still morally challenging to watch.
What truly pulls the film through is the stunning performances. Powley is superb as Minnie, the wannabe graphic artist who may have made the transition into womanhood but deep down is still very much an immature child. Powley’s raw and untamed performance makes Diary the edgy film that it is and demonstrates her talent as a versatile actress.
Kristen Wiig is excellent as Charlotte, Minnie’s free-loving, heavy-drinking, drug-taking mother, who at times, perceives her daughter as a rival. Disappointingly, her character rarely appears on screen but when she does, she brings a kind of candor and ironic verve to a woman who needs a harsh lesson in parental responsibility but does care…in her own way.
A special mention needs to go to Skarsgård as the handsome, yet morally dubious Monroe Rutherford. Skarsgård, who arguably plays the hardest role in the film, perfectly conveys the balance between addictive lust and troubled moral conscience to pull off an incredibly convincingly performance.
Visually, this is a stunning film, captured in a beautifully hazy luminescence by cinematographer Brandon Trost (who won the Cinematography award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival), and the film’s period detail is also excellent. There is plenty of animation superimposed over the live action (in the style of Phoebe Gloeckner and Aline Kominsky) and while this works well as a narrative device, it may not be to everyone’s taste.
If you can overlook the morally difficult subject matter, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a provocative, candid and funny film about the transition from female adolescence to womanhood and, more importantly, the value of self-worth. A decent directorial debut from Marielle Heller.
Read more of Donna’s reviews at Screenrelish.com