The Diary of a Teenage Girl

(2015) *** 1/2 R
102 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Marielle Heller. Cast: Kristen Wiig, Bel Powley, Domino The Cat, Alexander Skarsgård, Christopher Meloni.


This is America, where there are certain things that you talk about unhesitatingly (Donald Trump) and certain things that you don’t (female adolescent…whatever), with a creative understanding of what constitutes true obscenity. Like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand, many Americans prefer to pretend adolescent female desire doesn’t exist. Respect, then, to novelist Phoebe Gloeckner for her novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and writer-director Marielle Heller for her cinematic adaptation of it. 

In this story, told matter-of-factly from the point of view of a mostly unapologetic, red-blooded fifteen-year-old girl, sexual interest, pursuit, and practice consume much of Minnie Goetze’s time and energy. As played by newcomer Bel Powley, Minnie is both smart and naive, a burgeoning social critic learning to question and moderate those hallmarks of hormone-driven teenage existence: gut emotional responses and knee-jerk reactions. But these are hard-won lessons for a girl whose basic instinct is to do an end-run around her oblivious mother Charlotte (Kristin Wiig) to initiate an affair with her 35-year-old boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard).

In any other movie, the same situation would be played for cynical misanthropic laughs or as miserable tragedy, but Heller (who once played Minnie in an Off-Broadway production she scripted) knows this is a story—lived out in variations every day in America—that’s deserving of an honest treatment devoid of the usual rush to judgment. We witness a power dynamic of mutual interest and reward, as well as intoxicating risk and possibility, made headier by sex and the search of self and other for signs of love. Minnie doesn’t fall into the archetype of a sick nymphet or some kind of victim, and Monroe isn’t simply branded as a creep with only one thought on his mind.

Rather, they are two living, breathing individuals, and while they’re almost certainly making a mistake, it’s the kind of mistake they’re both likely to look back on with a rueful appreciation of how it shaped their characters and, in all likelihood, with some level of fondness (helping our imaginations to go there, Gloeckner’s story takes place not today, but in 1976 San Francisco). The wide-eyed Powley and close-to-the-vest Skarsgard oblige Heller’s creative goal with their truthful turns, and Wiig strikes just the right funny-sad notes to highlight, with thoughtful specificity, her efficiently scripted background presence.

In most respects, Minnie’s coming-of-age tale is conventional…for a male protagonist (stretching back to the gauzier nostalgia of a Summer of ’42); it’s high time to explore the flip side. In addition to her sexual development, Minnie takes steps in vocational formation, including heroine worship of cartoonist Aline Kominsky (lightly superimposed animations, a nod to the novel’s graphic elements, illustrate Minnie’s yen to illustrate). Without prurience or high-fives for the eavesdropping viewers, the film’s opening line announces its take-it-or-leave-it reality with Minnie joyfully confiding in her diary: “I had sex today. Holy shit!”

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