An outstanding debut for writer-director Marielle Heller, this red-blooded adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 graphic novel is a refreshingly honest coming-of-age tale, largely free of dewy-eyed sentiment but rather mining plenty of truth, uncomfortable though it might be, from its intimate examination of sexual awakening.
In 1976 San Francisco, 15-year-old Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) is eager to lose her virginity, and after a boozy night out at a bar, she starts having sex with her mother Charlotte’s (Kristen Wiig) handsome boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). As she tries to navigate her own blossoming sexuality as well as the inherent complications of their dubious relationship, Minnie comes to learn much about life and “love”.
Period coming-of-age movies with a quirky tone and killer soundtrack are a dime a dozen, yet here’s one that rises firmly above the norm, aided by its blunt approach in spite of controversial subject matter, its superb style – complete with some fantastic animated flourishes – and at least two excellent performances.
While many seemingly similar movies might either sanitise the sexual aspect or strike a more overt moral judgment, Heller makes the viewer more an observer than anything; though Monroe’s actions are in the very least highly questionable, he’s not a black-and-white cardboard sleaze, and the film does a great job detailing the fairly ordinary circumstances of how his affair blooms.
We get to see Minnie in a number of fairly graphic trysts throughout the movie, which may make some viewers uncomfortable given her character’s age, but of course, remember that actress Powell was over 20 years old before filming began (though she easily passes for years younger). It’s necessary for the film to be this up-front, given how rarely youthful sexuality is depicted on-screen at all, and when it is, it usually feels inauthentic.
Even so, it’s the performances more than the somewhat familiar core premise that really makes this one a winner; Powell is an absolute revelation, holding the screen’s attention with her unconventional face and ever-convincing portrayal of an emotionally confused girl on the cusp of womanhood. Skarsgard meanwhile has his own challenges, namely walking a fine line between being genuinely charming and an outright creeper; that he ends up as neither is a testament to his pleasantly ambiguous work here. Wiig again affirms her gift for drama too, though her part of the trio is decidedly smaller than the others.
It might be too uncomfortably frank for some tastes, but Diary of a Teenage Girl broaches complex subject matter with rare open-mindedness, and that’s worth celebrating.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is on DVD January 11th