In 1976 San Francisco, Minnie (Bel Powley) is an aspiring, self-conscious 15-year-old cartoonist who has finally experienced sex for the first time. Rejoice, everyone!
Wait a minute, you sickos! That awakening has been aroused through a complex affair with her free-spirited mom Charlotte’s (Kristen Wiig) 35-year-old boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard).
I’ll take 15-20 for $500, Alex.
Though she is excited by her newfound sexual awakening, Minnie understands she must remain silent about the taboo and – uh – highly illegal relationship she shares with Monroe, recording her thoughts in a tape-recorded diary.
Having not read Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 graphic novel that it’s based on, nor seen the stage play adapted by and starring Marielle Heller, I went into The Diary of a Teenage Girl fresh, only carrying with me one worry: That this would be another The Lifeguard. Those that have read my top 10 worst of 2013 post, know that garbage flick has a comfortable spot in the middle of that trash heap. The film, which starred a talent-wasted Kristen Bell as a 30-year-old adult child sharing a sexual relationship with a high schooler, took a casual “whatever” approach to its subject of statutory rape. I remember thinking if that same approach had been given with the gender roles switched – good Lord – it’d be career suicide for everyone involved.
Well, now we have them reversed, a 35-year-old man and a 15-year-old girl, with this 2015 indie out of Sundance from Marielle Heller in her feature film debut as writer and director.
And it manages to be everything The Lifeguard wishes it could be.
This isn’t the first film to deal with underage love. You could go back to the ’60s for the most obvious example from a director who was no stranger to controversy, Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita. Various other sexual taboos, namely incest, have also been explored such as the 1971 French film Murmur of the Heart and Alan Rickman’s Close My Eyes. For this being her feature film debut, Marielle Heller’s diving head first into the deep end. The Diary of a Teenage Girl tackles a subject that would prove to be challenging for an established filmmaker, let alone a newbie. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that incapable hands could’ve turned this into a distasteful disaster. Heller’s debut, though, wisely avoids such disastrous ends, and even with its tidy ending is still an unconventionally bold and candid look at one girl’s coming-of-age journey.
Minnie and Monroe’s relationship isn’t explicitly condemned, but viewers should know there’s a difference between observing behavior and condoning behavior (The Wolf of Wall Street, my favorite film of 2013, is a recent example that many mistakenly interpreted as Martin Scorsese endorsing rampant misogyny and gluttonous excess). Heller never once condones their relationship, and all it takes is one mortified expression from Monroe when Minnie defiantly tells him she’ll tell her mom what they’re doing for us to know he at least knows that what they’re doing isn’t exactly the best decision they’ll make. Consequences are inevitable and do eventually arrive over the course of the film (Minnie’s diary tapes are a device that predictably lead to someone discovering them behind her back), but Heller respects the audience’s intelligence enough to not beat them upside the head with an after-school special, and instead lets Minnie sort through the consequences of her actions herself.
The people involved in Minnie’s life are far from saints, but are also far from one-dimensional losers. Kristen Wiig, continuing to impress me with her post-SNL career moves, is great as Minnie’s loose mother (whose Patty Hearst debate is a striking parallel to Minnie’s circumstances) who won’t be winning awards for “Mother of the Year” any time soon the way she practically encourages her daughter to tart herself up to gain the boys’ attention, but also is in now way ready to handle just how far her little girl is willing to go. You know ’cause the key word there is “boys” and not her 35-year-old boyfriend.
Or any 35-year-old for that matter.
One of the more challenging role goes to Alexander Skarsgard. It would be too easy to portray Monroe as some skeevy “Aqualung” creep, even if it’ll prove difficult for viewers to not see him in that light. Though Monroe is a bit of a slacker, Skarsgard injects him with just enough charm to make you understand why someone as desperate to be desired like Minnie would be drawn to someone like him. The fact that he is isn’t a predictable perv, and instead someone that is more often than not actually warm and kindhearted makes it all the more unsettling that he’d be willing to engage in a relationship that would today land him on To Catch a Predator faster than you can say “Hi, why don’t you take a seat over there?”
In what is surely a star-making turn for her, Bel Powley is far and away the star of this film. Powley, who makes for a believable 15-year-old even at 23, is absolutely sensational in a complex performance that is equal parts funny and sad; vulnerable and confident; sweet and nasty; manipulative and manipulated. All of us who have been beaten senseless by the cruel bitch that is teenage adolescence will empathize with Minnie’s coming into her own, and sympathize over the fact that as “grown up” as she thinks she now is, she’s still an unsure, naive teen at heart (not that Monroe and his love for H.R. Pufnstuf is any more mature) who still has a lot to learn about life. That aspect’s most telling when Monroe wishes to end the affair, and it doesn’t occur to her that it may be ’cause it’s inappropriate. Like any naive teen desperate to be loved might feel, she assumes it’s ’cause she’s fat.
From the technical side of things, both Heller and cinematographer Brandon Trost give the film a washed-out, faded glow that perfectly captures the essence of 1970’s San Francisco, and the soundtrack fits a period of the decade that came somewhere in between the decadence of the disco era and the unbridled anarchy of the punk rock scene. Heller’s use of humor and style are obviously risky moves, but they all serve a story that is being told through the perspective of the lead character. While the animated sequences that accompany Minnie could’ve come off like a gimmick, the beautifully rendered artwork by Sara Gunnarsdottir work quite well as an apt extension of Minnie’s personality.
Given the subject matter, and especially the frank, sometimes fanciful, way it’s presented, it’s understandable if some viewers find The Diary of a Teenage Girl off-putting, but writer/director Marielle Heller, in a strong film-making debut, deserves much credit for tackling such a tough issue in a refreshingly honest manner. A tricky balancing act, for sure, but one that’s handled just right by Heller, and given great support by a terrific breakthrough lead performance from Bel Powley. Keep an eye out for these two ’cause they both have promising film careers ahead of them.
I give The Diary of a Teenage Girl an A- (★★★½).