August 20, 2015

CINEMA | Sex, Drugs, and 'The Diary of a Teenage Girl'

"I had sex today. Holy sh*t!"
Bel Powley Kristen Wiig Alexander Skarsgård | The Diary of a Teenage Girl

The very misleadingly titled The Diary of a Teenage Girl, based on Phoebe Gloeckner's graphic novel, is a powerfully frank, provocative story about a 15-year-old girl's experiences with sex, drugs, and everything else you could think of in 1976 San Francisco. Actress turned filmmaker Marielle Heller makes an auspicious screenwriting/directorial debut as she admirably takes on the difficult task of openly expressing the simultaneously empowering and confusing sexual awakening of a teenage girl without any moralization.

The 23-year-old British actress Bell Powley plays the titular teenager Minnie with a playful directness as she has a very illicit affair with her mother's 35-year-old boyfriend, a dimly aloof Alexander Skarsgård. The sex is treated rather bluntly and explicitly as Minnie, who's clearly having fun and less of a victim, explores her new desires and promiscuity as an honest, non-judgmental expression of her feelings. The way Minnie tries to understand love and care through the context of her newly sexually active, immature but self-aware teenager self is thoughtfully complex. Minnie desperately seeks control over her sexual desires, urges, and pleasures despite them leading her into trouble.

Kristen Wiig continues a string of interesting, more dramatic work with her trademark offbeat humour as Minnie's lush mother who's often more interested in partying with her daughter than necessarily raising her. The coming-of-age tale is sophisticated and always dramatic in its exploration of Minnie's growing sexuality and experimentation before self-destructing the way most teenagers do. It's a testament to Heller's writing and direction that she makes the objectionable material so palatably complicated and honest while remaining firmly in the point-of-view of Minnie's adolescence.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl beautifully fits its '70s San Francisco alt-comics style (think Robert Crum) filled with drawings and animation to annotate Minnie's feelings and emotions. Heller treats her characters with a gentle understanding as she frames both sexy encounters and uncomfortable interactions with an assured hand. Diary is a direct, pleasing film about difficult topics, most obviously, statutory rape and teenage sex. It's a refreshingly mature yet identifiable youthful portrait of female desire with all of its trappings and fulfillments.

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