The title "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" sounds like it would entail a fairly tame iteration on a female coming-of-age story, yet Marielle Heller's debut as both writer and director happens to be the boldest coming-of-age indie ever made – and the most challenging.
"Diary" stars Bel Powley as Minnie, a 15-year-old aspiring cartoonist in 1970s San Francisco looking for an opportunity to lose her virginity. She does, and it comes in the form of her mother's (Kristen Wiig) boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). As their illicit relationship becomes more and more involved and complicated, Minnie's relationship with her sexuality – and herself -- becomes equally so.
There's no denying that it is difficult to overcome the moral issues of Minnie and Monroe's affair, and it requires of Heller a very sensitive touch and an iron-clad sense of purpose. She sugarcoats nothing for those with delicate sensibilities. There are a lot of sex scenes that by their very nature will make viewers uncomfortable, but Heller successfully avoids exploiting the character or veering off-message. She treats Minnie as an adult, and in her writing, it's clear that neither character is solely responsible or solely to blame for the relationship.
The hardest thing to shake, as a viewer, is our tendency to be moral judges of Minnie's decisions and to hold notions of what the consequences should or will be for her actions. Switching gears and abandoning that approach to watching this story will be harder for some than others, but once it becomes clear that Heller's vision is completely judgment free, it becomes easier to embrace that aspect of the film.
Naturally, the explicit nature "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" makes it instantly different than most coming-of-age movies. The usual archetypes associated with this sub-genre are much less ubiquitous, and the notion of a "loss of innocence" in the literary sense gets completely redefined here considering Minnie actively plays a role in it. The '70s time frame is a bit of a clue that this is not a movie intended for budding teenagers, rather for people who have already been through such formative, challenging experiences. Further evidence: the story comes from Phoebe Gloeckner's semi- autobiographical graphic novel of the same name.
The maturity of the film, especially as it sees Minnie, requires a lot of Powley. She must be wide-eyed and optimistic, yet also advanced for her age and kind of devious. She must be sure of herself, yet unsure at various moments throughout the film. Powley (22 at the time of filming) is just old enough to get it down pat.
As much as Minnie has flaws, we never come to despise her, and that credit belongs to the writing. There's a poetry to the diary narration in the film, but it's language that resonates. So much of what Minnie thinks and feels mirrors our own experiences (especially the insecurities), even if those experiences weren't as scandalous.
Because we see the supporting characters from Minnie's perspective, they have to work harder to earn our empathy. It's virtually impossible for Skarsgard to earn it as Monroe, but he does convey that Monroe is a deeply lost, childlike soul. Wiig, on the other hand, does an impressive job in this non-traditional role for her as the mom, Charlotte. Charlotte does hard drugs with friends and says all the wrong things to her daughter, but her love for Minnie is apparent as are her other struggles. Her lack of affection and approval of Minnie undoubtedly has a hand in her desire to seek it through Monroe and others through sex.
The animated graphic elements styled after the novel are excellent, if not underutilized. At the same time, adding this facet to the movie creates a slight bombardment of storytelling styles. You have the narration piece, the cartoon/animation piece and then the fact that this is a movie. It splinters the film's identity a bit, but all these media have something to offer the viewer in conveying Minnie's journey and experiences.
Where Minnie arrives at the end of the movie is pretty satisfying and inspiring, even if you have to wonder whether a 15-year-old is really capable of arriving there. The story has a strong feminist message that people still struggle to learn, and has real-world value. It took some really uncomfortable, traumatic stuff for her to get there, but her self-discovery is more poignant than most of her indie coming-of-age peers.
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