'The Diary of a Teenage Girl'
Few films about teenagers (especially teen girls) capture that fragile era of life with the necessary level of awkward pain, discomfort and confusion. Teen stories are typically all about raunchy ruckus or inspirational coming-of-age. Marielle Heller’s directorial debut ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’, based on the acclaimed prose/graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, dives into the raunch and life lessons of the teenage years without sugar-coating. It can be a difficult film to watch, but also an inspired and insightful one.
The extraordinarily talented and evocatively saucer-eyed British actress Bel Powley stars as Minnie, the teen girl of the title. 15 and full of energy, obsessions and self-esteem issues, she has both the best and worst place to grow up, in 1970s San Francisco. On the plus side, it’s an incredibly open atmosphere where freaks are beloved and cherished. On the down side, the loose liberal attitudes of the ’60s are starting to slip into the painful realizations of the ’70s.
Minnie’s too-permissive mother is Kristen Wiig, a woman spurned by a repressive 1950s upbringing whose thirst for freedom has led to awkward realities, like doing coke in front of her daughters before passing out. She encourages Minnie to embrace her youthful sexuality. Unfortunately, the way the girl decides to embrace that sexuality is an affair with her mother’s 35-year-old boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard), a troubled situation that clearly isn’t going to work out too well for anyone.
Obviously, there’s a creepiness to the 15-year-old girl/35-year-old man relationship that writer/director Heller delights in teasing out. Their early encounters have a certain sweetness and a certain pathetic-ness. Minnie is presented with admirable power in the relationship, happy to command it despite her youthful disposition and understandable emotional instability. Skarsgard somehow pulls off the difficult trick of making his character’s emotions seem sincere while also coming off as clueless and less mature than his teenage girlfriend. When the shit hits the fan, things get ugly and Heller plays it all very real. Yet she also frames the film through her protagonist’s eyes with a flowery subjectivity and acidic wit that makes the experience far less miserable than it could have been.
Though that big uncomfortable and attention-grabbing sexual relationship is at the center of ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’, the movie is thankfully about more than mere salacious shock. It’s about a confusing period of growth for the teen, one made complicated by her sex-and-drugs fuelled surroundings. The giddy excitement Minnie’s early experimentation with both is played as lively and fun, but the inevitable harsh hangover soon sucks that all away.
However, Heller also doesn’t judge or moralize as a filmmaker. She warmly understands these obsessions and the universal nature of the emotions, presenting everyone and every action free of judgment and full of empathy. The extraordinary Powley creates a beautifully flawed character in a complex performance that hits giddy highs and crushing lows. Around the edges, Kristin Wiig carves out her own tragic character that is both a dark sign of things to come for pursuing this lifestyle and an empathetic broken woman unsure of how to dig her way out of her troubles. Both actresses are equally hilarious and heartbreaking and impossible to tear your eyes from due to their fearless commitment to the roles.
As a filmmaker, Heller also freely experiments with form. Her digital cinematography takes on a nice film-like appearance to mimic the hazy images of ’70s cinema. She often departs reality into her character’s mind, mixing in animated versions of unflattering drawings and fantasies as a means of matching the comic book half of the original novel. The result is a lively and touching film that freely mixes tones and styles with the complexity and dexterity of life.
‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’ certainly isn’t a movie for everyone. It delivers an uncomfortable experience and offers no easy moral message to wrap things up with a bow. However, for those who like films to sputter out the messiness of life every now and then, Heller and company have delivered a special little movie that will likely be required viewing for troubled teens for years to come.