Based on the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a coming-of-age comedy/drama written and directed by Marielle Heller. Set in 1970s San Francisco, it follows the story of Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley), a 15-year old girl who enters into an affair with her mother’s 34 year-old boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård).
Challenging, edgy and controversial, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a film about sexual awakening and the crossroads between female adolescence and womanhood. The narrative is told from the perspective of 15-year old Minnie who details her experiences on audio cassette which forms the narrative voice-over of the film. Set against the backdrop of the west coast hippie and feminist movement, Minnie’s mother Charlotte shows her daughter little love and affection and seems more intent on getting drunk and high on drugs. Minnie longs to be loved and touched so when her mum’s current boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard) invites her for a drink, Minnie’s hormones being to rage, and despite being two decades her senior, the pair begin an illicit and illegal affair.
While there are plenty of indie films that deal with sexual experimentation and the journey from adolescence to adulthood, The Diary of a Teenage Girl certainly pushes the limits when it comes to exploring unchecked sexual desires. While actress Bel Powley is in her twenties, there’s no getting away from the fact that she’s playing a 15-year old having sex with a man two decades her senior. The film is full of sex and drugs (including sex with strangers, group sex and even bout of prostitution) all of which show Powley in varying states of undress, and while the scenes are done with respect, it still morally challenging to watch.
What truly pulls The Diary of a Teenage Girl through is the stunning cast performances. Bel Powley is superb as Minnie, the wannabe graphic artist who may have made the transition into womanhood but deep down is still very much an immature child. Powley’s raw and untamed performance makes The Diary of a Teenage Girl the edgy film that it is and demonstrates her talent as a versatile actress.
Kristen Wiig is excellent as Charlotte, Minnie’s free-loving, heavy-drinking, drug-taking mother, who at times, perceives her daughter as a rival. Disappointingly, her character rarely appears on screen but when she does, she brings a kind of candour and ironic verve to the woman who needs a harsh lesson in parental responsibility but does cares in her own way.
A special mention needs to go to Alexander Skarsgård as the handsome, yet morally dubious Monroe Rutherford. Skarsgård, who arguably plays the hardest role in the film, perfectly conveys the balance between addictive lust and troubled moral conscience to pull off an incredibly convincingly performance.
Visually, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is stunning. The film is captured in a beautifully hazy luminescence by cinematographer Brandon Trost (who won the Cinematography award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival) and the period detail in the film is excellent. There is also lots of animation superimposed over the live action (in the style of Phoebe Gloeckner and Aline Kominsky) and while this worked well as a narrative device, it may not be to everyone’s taste.
If you can overlook the morally difficult subject matter, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a provocative, candid and funny film about the transition from female adolescence to womanhood and, more importantly, the value of self-worth. A decent directorial debut from Marielle Heller.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is released in the UK and the US on 7 August, 2015
This review was originally written for ScreenRelish