Release: Friday, August 7, 2015 (limited)
Written by: Marielle Heller
Directed by: Marielle Heller
If there was a film this year that epitomized the expression ‘don’t judge a book by its cover,’ uh . . . yeah, this is it.
In hindsight the suspect title is rather ingenious. ‘Teenage’ is certainly specific, and so is ‘the diary’ for that matter. Those aren’t the key words in the title, though. Instead, this film could have easily been titled The Diary of THE Teenage Girl, and with a simple change in articles, instantly there vanishes the personal space Marielle Heller, in an impressive directorial debut,
explores invades. By reducing the scope to an individual experience rather than assuming to speak for a generation of kids going through adolescence, Heller injects her film with an intimacy that makes the film a difficult one to look away from even while being pretty uncomfortable to watch.
The teenager in question is Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley), daughter of hard-partying, image-obsessed Charlotte who is played by Kristen “I’m everywhere now and movies are better because of it” Wiig. Charlotte and her first husband are divorced and she is now seeing the handsome, mustachioed Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). While Minnie’s curious, personal confession at the beginning — she’s just had sex for the first time and can’t stop thinking about it — is the kind of opening that quickly grabs attention, but is it enough to sustain it? Fortunately, this diary is loaded with dirty little secrets that slowly expose a family undergoing a major crisis.
Minnie is coming of age in a San Francisco set in the 1970s. Her sexual awakening encourages a series of pretty poor decisions. Her desires lead her into an affair with Monroe, who admits to having had feelings for her for sometime. Minnie hasn’t felt much attention from anyone for as long as she can remember. Perhaps the worst offender has been her own mother, who is more obsessed with extending the long-since-past days of the summer of love; Charlotte is frequently seen drunk and hanging sloppily off of Monroe’s shoulder, the pair adrift in a sea of smoke that fills the house top to bottom. Sometimes friends come over and ingratiate themselves in the cocaine that’s making the rounds.
In a corner and by herself, Minnie has her sights set on Monroe. Monroe every so often acknowledges her in the same room, but the action — yes, that action — will have to wait until later. That clandestinity is sketchy all on its own, but when factoring in age difference and the potential for the relationship to turn legally incestuous, it’s often amazing how Teenage Girl massages the risqué into something that resembles empathetic behavior. Not necessarily relatable behavior, but the kind of stuff that suggests teenage rebellion.
Heller doesn’t set her sights on perverting romance, and hopefully that wasn’t the point of Phoebe Gloeckner’s novel, either. For a film shot from the perspective of a confused teen, more often than not the sexual content is taboo rather than romantic. Performances from the lead trio — Powley being the most memorable of all — are across-the-board fantastic. Wiig is continuing a hot streak that’s lasted several years at this point, while Skarsgård challenges Wiig for the least likable adult character. Relative newcomer Powley, though, is the heart and soul of Teenage Girl‘s unusually intense angst and she will be remembered for her bravery here. Dressed down and with a crop of bangs that perhaps too lazily suggests unattractiveness, Powley’s natural prettiness is still visible but never becomes distracting.
That’s mostly because she fits so well into the environment. The film impresses with its strong production design — soft lighting and a dull color palette matches the air of melancholy that represses the Goetze household, as well as the general moroseness of an America trudging through a post-60s hangover. Scenes that don’t take place at home are largely fixated on dark and depressing knooks and crannies. Mood is inescapable. So are the awkward moments. But hey, at least they aren’t the kind you might associate with a film titled The Diary of a Teenage Girl.
Recommendation: A likely underwhelming box office draw due to its title, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is an authentic, emotional film about a life in transition. Tinged with a romanticism that’s not immediately obvious, the film works on many levels. Well-performed, unexpectedly dark and beautifully captured, I simply have to recommend giving this one a fair chance.
Running Time: 102 mins.
Quoted: “I’m better than you, you son of a bitch.”
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