D/W: Marielle Heller. DP: Brandon Trost. Starring: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgard, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Meloni, Abby Wait, Madeleine Waters, Austin Lyon, Margarita Leveiva. Based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures.
Another Sundance darling is making its transatlantic appearance in cinemas. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is not to be missed. Writer and director Marielle Heller first adapted Gloeckner’s novel into a stage play. A self declared labor of love, Heller handles the material deftly and presents a first feature that is nuanced, complex and hybrid, like its source material.
The film follows Minnie, played by British newcomer Bel Powley, as she handles being fifteen and losing her virginity to her mom’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). Telling her story into microphone set into a tape deck, she recounts her experiences while the film takes us forward with the events that transpire through the affair. Minnie is a budding cartoonist like Gloeckner, and the film incorporates animation and drawings like the novel. These sequences and additions work seamlessly and help visualize a story told through Minnie’s eyes.
Thankfully, The Diary of a Teenage Girl deals with its subject and illegal underage affair deftly and tenderly. Powley is able to play a spunky fifteen whose body language literally straddles the world of children and adulthood. Her voice-over avoids sugary saturation and rather fluctuates with the intensities of first sexual experiences. Skarsgard handles Monroe well, not letting the relationship sink into predator land. Rather Skarsgard, who’s best performance yet is 2012’s What Maise Knew, gives sexuality and life to a man clearly at odds with himself. He is matched well with Kristen Wiig as Minnie’s mom. More a figure and sometimes an event than an active parent, Wiig’s vain Charlotte balances the adolescent wanderings of her daughter. She seems to not have grown up yet either.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is set in 1976 San Francisco, which provides a specific moment in American history with drugs, fashion, and more. The film has a terrific sense of place, and Jonah Markowitz’s production design is layered and alive. The use of color is fabulous; it’s hard to forget the crushed velvet mustard colored blanket on Monroe’s bed. For a first time costume director, who is Heller’s sister-in-law, Carmen Grande is on point without pastiche. The look of the film is topical, not a bad moment for its marketing.
Here in the UK, the film is rated 18 and over. A fascinating contradiction to the fact it is told by a fifteen year old. Somehow ‘strong sex,’ which is listed as the only reason for the rating, prevents teenagers from actually seeing the film; whereas violence is nearly thrown at children in films rated PG. Compared to typical teen genre films, The Diary of a Teenage Girl actually works towards communicating the complexities of any teenage experience, especially a sexual one. (I think Perks of Being a Wallflower handled this well too). Certain things are universal yes, but certain films deal with characters, not archetypes, who make mistakes like we all do–blood stains and all.