VOD film review: The Diary Of A Teenage Girl
Mark Harrison | On 04, Jan 2016
Director: Marielle Heller
Cast: Bel Powley, Kristen Wiig, Alexander Saarsgard, Christopher Meloni
Watch The Diary Of A Teenage Girl online in the UK: BFI Player / Apple TV (iTunes) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store / CHILI
2015 had its share of movies adapted from comic books. The Avengers and the Fantastic Four made plenty of noise over the summer, but a far more emotionally bombastic film, based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s semi-autobiographical graphic novel, The Diary Of A Teenage Girl: An Account In Words And Pictures, may have passed you by at the quieter end of last year’s blockbuster season.
All the same, it was the subject of some controversy when Marielle Heller’s film, which faithfully adapts Gloeckner’s candid and insightful look at teenage female sexuality, was slapped with an 18 certificate by the BBFC upon its UK release. This arose from the fact that many of the organisation’s notes on why the certificate was given could also apply to male-oriented sex comedies that made lighter of their subject and escaped higher certification.
The Diary Of A Teenage Girl broaches under-age sex and drug abuse in a mature manner, while, for instance, the execrable Adam Sandler comedy That’s My Boy hinged upon statutory rape and incest for yuks and received a 15 rating. That’s without mentioning the more glamorously violent films that were also deemed more appropriate for a younger audience than this. This certification frustrated the filmmakers, who had made the film primarily for teenage girls, but now that it’s out on VOD, it is to be hoped that the intended audience will get to catch up with a film that feels all too rare.
The titular diary is authored by the character Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley), an aspiring cartoonist who decides to record journal entries, just so that she can talk about her experiences out loud. Living in 1970s San Francisco, at 15 years old, Minnie has recently had her first sexual experience and needs to express her secret to someone, even if that someone is a cassette recorder.
She can’t exactly turn to her bohemian mother. Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), because it’s her 35-year-old boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) who took her virginity, after an alcohol-fuelled flirtation goes further than they expected. Naturally, Minnie feels as if her eyes have been opened to the depth and complexity of adult relationships, but she soon discovers that there’s much more to it than the occasional quick tumble with her mother’s lover.
As well as Heller handles this overall, the essential part of the film’s taboo-breaking premise is Bel Powley’s performance. Boasting a flawless American accent and a fearless approach to her character, Powley is a revelation and she makes Minnie’s precocious, adolescent attitude endlessly watchable.
She’s got a lot of voiceover to deliver, as the film externalises Minnie’s inner monologue, a feat which is always tricky in a visual medium, but she’s supremely engaging. More importantly, in between secret messages to her secret diary, she’s one of the most expressive young actresses around; she stole the show in a supporting turn as Princess Margaret in last year’s A Royal Night Out, but her range is really showcased here.
There’s also a surprising turn from Alexander Skarsgård, whose cool, older man is a world away from the sexy vampire turn in True Blood that first made him a star. Monroe is typical of the film’s shocking, yet neatly subversive, agenda when it comes to relationships – he’s got years on Minnie and any of her male classmates, but we can clearly see (even if it takes everyone else a little longer to cotton on) that he doesn’t know any better. Elsewhere, Kristen Wiig is reliably excellent, playing exasperating and exasperated in equal measure as Charlotte, Christopher Meloni cuts a fascinatingly uptight figure as her ex-husband Pascal, while Abby Wait steals scenes as Minnie’s little sister and perpetually innocent irritant Gretel.
But just as it was on the page, this is a story in words and pictures. In the film, this manifests itself by bursting into illustrated animations of certain emotions, including one memorable scene in which a skyscraper-sized Minnie-zilla romps through San Francisco after a regular-sized classmate – it’s not exactly subtle, but it’s a striking way of depicting some complex beats that ties the central conceit to the character’s main passion of cartooning.
There’s no question that The Diary Of A Teenage Girl is shocking, but Heller et al. have a firm grasp on what they’re doing. They haven’t set out to make something lurid or crass, but neither are they protesting innocence or irreverence. (It should go without saying that there was certainly more going on at the genesis of this film than the folks at Happy Madison listening to Van Halen’s Hot For Teacher on a loop.)
Comparisons to the styles of both Ghost World and fictional diarists Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones may abound, and they’d be fitting in some ways, but none of them put together could encapsulate the originality of what we have here. After decades of comedies that reinforce male sexual desires, here is a brutally honest but tonally flawless film about the opposite sex and their experiences. On top of that, it’s still funny and quotable and in Powley, boasts the single best breakthrough performance in cinema in the last 12 months. It’s not appropriate for all ages, but by executing its noble intentions so perfectly, in such vivid and candid style, The Diary of a Teenage Girl seems destined to be a cult classic.