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The Diary of a Teenage Girl | reviews, news & interviews

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Sundance hit is quietly shattering

Bel-lissima: Bel Powley as Minnie in `The Diary of a Teenage Girl'

Multiple stars are born in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, the conventionally titled film premiered earlier this year at Sundance that turns out to be unconventional in every way that matters. Adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner's novel about a 15-year-old's coming of age in the swinging, drugs-soaked San Francisco of the 1970s, first-time director Marielle Heller has made one of the most probing films yet about that painful journey we all make through what Henry James so succinctly titled "the awkward age".

Along the way, Heller has given 23-year-old Bel Powley the breakout role of anyone's dreams, and the stage-trained English actress seizes the opportunity with an avidity as sizable as her singularly outsized eyes. Indeed, an actress who can be prone to shrillness if misdirected (to wit her 2011 Broadway debut as Thomasina in Arcadia, a child-woman not dissimilar in longing to the role she has here) is close to unsurpassable this time out, her navigating of that difficult gap between innocence and experience something to behold.  

"I had sex today, holy shit," Powley's Minnie Goetz announces into her tape recorder at the outset, director Heller's expert script rewinding to take us to the point that she lost her virginity to the strikingly seductive if weak-willed Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). A handsome layabout whose steely fists – a virtue he makes a point of to Minnie – can't conceal the needful manboy he is at heart, Monroe shouldn't legally be having relations with someone underage.

That's doubly true given that Minnie happens to be the daughter of Monroe's girlfriend, Charlotte (a stellar Kristin Wiig, pictured above with Skarsgård), a good-time gal all her own who inadvertently urges her daughter to "put [herself] out there" – which Minnie, unbeknownst to her mum, is more than happy to do.

It's giving little away to report that Charlotte eventually discovers what is going on when not on some sort of coke-fueled binge, Heller's film less interested in the mechanics of revelation and far more in the interiority of an adolescent whose burgeoning self-awareness isn't enough to keep her rampaging libido on course. Exulting one minute in breasts that, Minnie takes pleasure in reporting, she has had "three full years now", she's equally quick to chastise herself for being fat. And just as she will sotto voce make the fateful admission that she "loves" Monroe, at least one of their encounters finds Minnie enquiring playfully of a man two decades her senior whether it might be possible for her to be "raped". (Monroe, separately, calls her a "nympho".)

Powley captures the self-contradictory whirligig of Minnie at every turn, an impulsiveness that gets channelled in visual terms into the graphics that pour from the pen of this aspirational cartoonist. The implication that art can be if not a corrective at least a complement to life provides its own poignant undertow to a cumulatively devastating film that works its power in the quieter moments (Powley pictured below in the tub), not just in the inevitable confrontations. 

Skarsgård, in a career-best performance, is his young co-star's match every step of the way, Monroe's effortless charm no defense against demons of his own. Indeed, Heller gives all the characters their own voice (Christopher Meloni pops up in a memorable cameo as the errant stepdad for whom a firm handshake is everything), the film keen never to pass judgement but, instead, to root these characters in a recognisable time and place while at the same time transcending the specifics of an era defined by, among other signposts, the peculiar saga of Patty Hearst and the androgynous appeal of T. Rex.

And how does Minnie emerge from a saga that includes a flirtation with prostitution and a same-sex dalliance before the credits roll? As no longer a mock-adult in over her head but a savvy, newly clear-eyed presence who has learned to make at least some kind of sense of the scars encountered along the way. And Heller is cool enough not to need to belabor her film's chastening message: that the best response to love's turmoil is to learn in whatever way possible to love yourself.

Overleaf: Watch the trailer for The Diary of a Teenage Girl


 

Powley in a breakout performance captures the self-contradictory whirligig of Minnie at every turn

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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