director Marielle Heller
“Coming of age” isn’t exclusively a euphemism for becoming sexually active for the first time, but I’d be willing to bet that more than half of all “coming of age” stories are essentially about sex.
This is very much the case of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 graphic novel, retelling the story of her own young womanhood in mid-1970’s San Francisco. The film opens on 15 year old Minnie (Bel Powley), walking through Golden Gate Park and thinking with pride about having just lost her virginity, which she did with her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (played by the hunky Alexander Skarsgård). Though this is far from the only sex Minnie gets up to in this exploratory, experimental time of her life transcribed onto cassette tape, it’s the primary relationship of the film.
Minnie’s mother is played by the excellent Kristen Wiig. Divorced and separated from another long-time step-father figure, she’s almost quintessentially 1970’s middle aged, experimenting with drugs, in open relationships, wide-open to her daughters, free-reining it.
Diary of a Teenage Girl is the first film by Marielle Heller, who originally adapted the graphic novel as a play (which she starred in herself), but you wouldn’t guess this was a fledgling effort. The film’s aesthetic and design captures the 1970’s vividly and gives the feel of time and place without reeking of clichés. It’s a very solid effort, also employing animations of Gloeckner’s drawings (Minnie is also a budding cartoonist) in imaginative flights into Minnie’s mind.
It’s an interesting contrast to teen dramas of the period that it depicts. Films of the time (the ones I’m thinking of are Over the Edge (1979), Foxes (1980), or Little Darlings (1980) — not EXACTLY the time frame but close) tended toward the more gritty or realistic, less sentimental. Diary is a mix of realism and some sentimentality. A point that is a real contrast is the depiction of sexuality in a 15 year old girl, especially in having a relationship with a man 20 years older. Today that would be seen entirely as statutory rape. Minnie’s story, though, is told from her sensibility and perspective, that this is something for which she had volition and consent. I won’t get into the debate on this, but it’s certainly one of the strengths of this story.
I’d heard good things about the film and I will only echo them here. It’s a very good film. Powley is excellent, 23 years old playing 15, but it works. Skarsgård and Wiig are very good too.