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Diary of a Teenage Girl – Review


Release Date: 7 August 2015 [USA]
Director: Marielle Heller
Writer: Phoebe Gloeckner [Novel] - Marielle Heller [Screenplay]
Cast: Bel Powley - Alexander Skarsgård - Kristen Wiig



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Posted August 17, 2015 by

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Diary of a Teenage Girl Review:

There’s been much made of the 18 certificate slapped on Marielle Heller’s directorial debut, probably down to the number of expletives and scenes of drug use as much as the subject matter. But perhaps the most shocking thing about this coming of age drama is that it manages to depict the sexual relationship between a fifteen year old girl and her mother’s thirty five year old boyfriend without hysteria and moralising.

Bel Powley is a revelation as Minnie Goetz, an aspiring cartoonist living in San Francisco in the mid-seventies with her little sister, Gretel (Abigail Wait), and her mother Charlotte (Kirsten Wiig). Bohemian Charlotte clearly still has one foot in the sixties, rarely seen without a drink in one hand, a cigarette or bump of cocaine in the other, and her professed feminist ideals are wildly at odds with her habit of measuring her own self-worth (and that of her daughters) by how attractive she is to the opposite sex.

It’s Charlotte’s louche squeeze, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), who awakens Minnie’s burgeoning sexual appetite. Minnie astutely recognises that while she might not possess her mother’s classical beauty, she has something far more powerful going for her – youth and the lure of the forbidden. Powley is one of those actors whose face can change from childlike and plain to sublimely beautiful in a heartbeat, making her endlessly fascinating to watch. This is aptly demonstrated by a scene in which Minnie stands naked in front of a mirror appraising her body. It’s a turning point for her, a revelation. Minnie begins to appreciate her body for the pleasure it can afford her and others, and her self-portraits, formerly monstrous, hulking caricatures, start to reflect that.

Powley’s performance is as confident and unflinching as Minnie is. There are moments of honesty and frankness which reminded me of Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands, particularly when Goetz marks Monroe with her blood after he takes her virginity, and later sniffs and nibbles at the dried crust of it under her fingernail. Her drawings are often sexually explicit and grotesque, but her refusal to be shamed by them is refreshing. Hollywood has long portrayed teen boys as lewd, obsessed with bodily functions, and perpetually horny, but we hardly ever get to see the reality of female desire – equally gross and beautiful and outrageous and normal.

Wiig proves she is just as effective as a straight actor as she is in comedic roles, and Skarsgard manages to make Monroe almost sympathetic. He is not a predator, rather an opportunist, handsome and affable enough that Minnie’s fleeting infatuation is totally believable, if uncomfortable. While there are breadcrumbs left for us in the form of Charlotte’s irresponsible behaviour, constant references to the Patty Hearst kidnap case, step-father Pascal’s suggestion that Minnie’s need for physical affection from her mother is somehow perverse, and classmate Ricky’s assertion that Minnie is too intense for him to want to continue their sexual relationship, there is never blame attributed to any one character for the affair. It is just a thing that happens. Similarly, Minnie is presented as a sum of her parts, her personality a mixture of external influences and her own, unique world view.

The gorgeous production design and Sara Gunnarsdottir’s Crumb-esque illustrations of Minnie’s imaginings lend a dream-like quality to proceedings and compliment the journal-confessional intimacy. There are moments of exquisite beauty which reflect the wonder of being young and alive and living new experiences. Although many of Minnie’s experimental adventures leave her feeling weird and creepy, and she abstractly considers killing herself in the absence of love, she is always vital, open, and alive. Her muse, an imaginary version of Aline Kominsky, whom Minnie sees signing in a comic book shop, appears in animated form throughout, assuring our heroine that alienation is good for her art.

There are aspects which aren’t wholly successful. Minnie’s post-bombshell dabbling with same-sex relations leading to drugs and danger of rape felt a little clichéd and melodramatic, as did the penultimate image of Minnie dancing on her own. But the film is based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s autobiographical illustrated novel, and for the most part it has the ring of truth. Minnie’s epiphany, that self-acceptance and doing something that you are passionate about is the key to happiness, is truly the definition of growing up, and the credit-roll footage of her revelling in the love and friendship of her younger sister – someone who has spent the whole film on the periphery – is a joy.

Spirited and exciting, Diary of a Teenage Girl lingers in the mind, and Minnie’s story is one of the most relatable and realistic portrayal of a young woman ever to have come out of Hollywood.


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Katie Young
Katie Young – Author
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