With the countless number of teenage coming of age movies, you’d think that we’ve have explored every possible nuance of adolescence, leaving future generations with an immaculate map of how to just be yourself. There will never be a blueprint for future generations to follow because we’re all individually crafted through our varied experiences, be they region, gender, sexual orientation, etc. The Diary of a Teenage Girl, the writing-directing debut of Marielle Heller, is a coming of age story, but one that is told with such life and vibrancy that it fails to feel anything but strikingly unique despite hitting a few familiar beats.
The film opens with Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) walking with a new spring in her step. It’s a sunny day in 1976 San Francisco and as she tells us in a voiceover, “I had sex today. Holy shit.” The newly confident 15-year-old then goes back to the home that she shares with her mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) and younger sister Gretel (Abby Wait) and records the intimate details of losing her virginity on a tape recorder. The film then takes us through her recollections of her seduction by her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). These scenes are remarkably unconformable yet are so captivating that you can’t look away. From there, we follow Minnie’s attempts to balance her emotional well being through a sexual awakening of deleterious consequences.
In a minor miracle for a film dealing with such a risqué sexual relationship, The Diary of a Teenage Girl avoids moralizing its protagonist. Whether through sexual or chemical experimentation, the film is much more interested in exploring the reality of the errors made in youth, of attempts at self-discovery in a time in one’s life filled with insecurity and uncertainty. Even as the film avoids heavy moralizing of Monroe’s statutory rape or Charlotte’s hard-partying lifestyle, it allows their failures to speak to the larger failures of the ‘60s counter culture, trying to keep the party going in spite the weight of responsibilities.
Based on The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures by Phoebe Gloeckner, Marielle Heller’s adaptation retains the feel of an underground comic book better than most superhero films honor their source material. There’s an affection for underground cultures, from the music of Nico, The Stooges, and T-Rex to inclusion of cartoonist Aline Kominsky as a chief inspiration to Minnie. In certain fantasy moments, the film adopts the style of Ralph Bakshi adapting R. Crumb – it’s an old style that feels fresh as Heller knows when to incorporate these scenes in a thematically sound fashion, not just as stylistic flourishes.
Of course, a film entitled The Diary of a Teenage Girl wouldn’t work too well if there were an inadequate actress in as the titular teenage girl. Luckily, Bel Powley is a revelation, taking the entire weight of the movie’s dramatic and comedic elements on her shoulders and carrying the whole film across the finish line. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Powley is working across from Kristen Wiig at the top of her game, effortlessly blending her character’s hedonism and heart. For fans of True Blood, however, you might not like the type of character that Alexander Skarsgård plays – I heard more than one comment mentioning that his True Blood persona is ruined by Monroe. Christopher Meloni makes a brief but memorable appearance as Pascal, Minnie’s former step-father.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a wonderful film with fantastic performances, clever writing, and assured direction. With her feature film debut, Marielle Heller has hoisted herself into the realm of the most exciting young filmmakers to an keep an eye on. But The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a remarkable film for its deft handling of material that can be tough to digest. And it doesn’t revolve solely around a disastrous love affair. This is a film that worries about fitting in, body standards, and the youthful mistaken notion that sexual intercourse means people actually care about you. Most of all, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a soulful portrait of a perilous time in a young woman’s life. It carries itself with an honesty in both its humor and its heart. Unlike its main character, the film is looking for its personality – this movie knows what it wants to do and achieves it.