Even in an era of sexual acceptance and pushing past taboos, most conventional tales of adolescence tread very lightly around the subject of a young girls sexual awakening. Then comes a film like The Diary of a Teenage Girl that simply conks you over the head with it.
Bold and unapologetic, 15 year old Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) elatedly announces ‘I had sex today, Holy %^$&’ without an ounce of regret – despite her new found lover being her mother’s (Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids) 35 year old boyfriend, Munroe (Alexander Skarsgard, True Blood).
In the smoky backdrop of a loose and carefree 1970s San Franciso, Minnie’s conquest is a point of adolescent awe and intrigue that leads her to begin chronicling her experiences and emotions on tape as their encounters continue.
Dirty minded, brutally honest and curious about both love and seduction Minnie is a young girl relatable in a way that no hollywoodized starlet ever is. Awkward, strange and remarkably frank, she defiantly owns her insecurities and has a real sense of self. Aspiring to be a cartoonist, she embraces being an outsider, but remains charmingly upbeat and naive.
Bringing her to life is the incredible newcomer Bel Powley, whose reception at the film’s Sundance premier has lead to real buzz around her name. She is truly captivating to watch (in part due to her striking big blue eyes) and takes on a disarmingly awkward posture and goofy but adorable grin that constantly brings us back to the characters young age. Powley adds so many layers to the character (taken from Phoebe Gloeckner ‘s graphic novel) and amazingly manages to outshine the entire cast (all of whom do give top notch performances), really showcasing her as a fresh and powerful new talent.
Also new to the table is writer/director Marielle Heller. Known mostly for small acting roles, this directorial debut leaves much anticipation of great things to come. The film is beautifully styled and atmospheric, painting a colourful picture of the sometimes seedy, drug & booze fuelled ’70s setting without ever getting too heavy or judgemental.
Using sporadic animation as a way into Minnie’s weird and wonderful mind adds a light and imaginative texture to the film, but it’s also part of the films greatest strength – the effort not to let it be about vilification.
Rather than portraying Munroe as solely a sexual predator, the film is bold enough to allow him likeability, and by doing so, prevents Minnie from being fully victimised and the film from being dour and maudlin. Skarsgård perfectly skates the line between charming and creepy, and there are even (shocking) comedic tones to their scenes.
Rather than trivialising the subject matter, this only serves to make it more relatable and accessible. The characters are given so much room to be bare, honest and real, that despite their flaws no one comes across as just a ‘bad guy’.
Even looking at the contrast between Minnie’s mother – a party loving woman obsessed with looks and being the centre of a man’s attention – and her step father (Christopher Meloni, Law & Order) – an uptight control freak concerned only with reputation – you find that there are both negative and redeeming qualities in both.
While the consequences of experimenting with drugs and sexual freedom are presented, the goal of the film is not to dissuade, but rather to embrace the need in adolescence to make mistakes in order to find yourself. Minnie is one of the finest role models for teenage girls you will find, and by the films end earns true self respect and an understanding of independence.
This is the kind of film-making that we desperately need more of. Both Heller and Powley are fresh and much needed voices in cinema, and the former is an especially strong example of female directing that will hopefully continue to shine in years to come.
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