In the era before girls “just want(ed) to have fun,” their introduction to sex was a more complicated thing. Even today, few female teens can ever walk it like they talk it (or sing it). For 15-year-old Minnie Goetze (Powley), in 1976 San Francisco, it’s the moment between the hippies’ peace-and-love permissiveness and punk rock’s self-flagellation. As The Diary of a Teenage Girl opens, Minnie walks through Golden Gate Park with a Cheshire Cat grin on her face. “I just had sex today,” she declares. “Holy shit.” With that, the movie is off and running.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is the rare movie that presents the subject of the loss of virginity from the female perspective. Not only is the film unique in this regard, but also in its frankness, humor, and artistry. Nonpornographic films that showcase teenage girls’ sexual desires are few; among them are the recent An Education, as well as Smooth Talk and Thirteen. Yet even a film like Lolita is not told from the title character’s point of view.
Minnie is a budding cartoonist, whose proclivities are less like the Disney mouse and more like R. Crumb and Aline Kominsky’s underground creations. (Kominsky, whose Twisted Sisters comic book was first published in 1976, is an animated presence in the movie, offering words of advice and sometimes accompanying Minnie as she walks). She narrates her experiences in a drawing notebook that she keeps with her at all times and recorded audio tapes hidden in her closet. (Note that if introduced in the first act, tapes, like Chekhov’s gun, are bound to ricochet by the third.)
Minnie lives with her younger sister Gretel (Wait) and single mother Charlotte (Wiig), a woman who’s barely responsible for herself, no less two children. Often out drinking and coked-up, Charlotte is not so much detached from her girls as she is young, immature, and a child of her times. Charlotte’s handsome steady boyfriend Monroe (Skarsgård) is a constant presence, and becomes the object of Minnie’s growing sexual curiosity – a curiosity that is soon consummated and, ultimately, turns into an affair. Make no mistake: Minnie is the initiator of these sexual relations with a man who’s twice her age and her mother’s boyfriend. (“Who knows if I’ll ever have another chance to have sex?” Minnie wonders to herself naively.) Yet Monroe offers little resistance, and this inappropriate and secret sexual liaison is sure to be the topic of provocative post-screening discussions.
Despite the troubling affair and Minnie’s further experimentations with sex and drugs, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is less provocative than it is blunt and honest. The screenplay was adapted by first-time filmmaker Marielle Heller from Phoebe Gloeckner’s illustrated novel of the same title, although Heller benefits from having earlier adapted the book into a play in which she also starred. It’s a stunningly assured debut whose brio is enhanced by the film’s spot-on performances. Wiig is perfect as the heedless mom, Skarsgård brilliantly walks a line that reveals him to be neither a predatory villain or passive idiot, and Christopher Meloni as Charlotte’s ex behaves as a protective adult in Minnie’s life but is also an annoying pedant. The film’s real secret sauce, however, is Bel Powley as Minnie. A British stage actress, Powley is unforgettable here as the wide-eyed teen. Her Minnie is smart, capable, talented, yet wet behind the ears. Although Minnie’s risky situation will make you worry about what may come next for the character (just like you might with a real teen), you feel confident that she has the chops to make it out of her precocious teenage years with few lasting scars.
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