The all-female team behind this picture — writer-director Marielle Heller, star Bel Powley and author of the “hybrid novel” on which it’s based Phoebe Gloeckner — all insist that to them this story “feels closer to what it felt like to be a real teenage girl” than anything else out there.
Not that this story is without precedent in contemporary cinema. In particular “Thirteen,” written by its star Nikki Reed when she was 13 and brought to the screen with keen fidelity to the teenage experiences of many girls by Catherine Hardwicke, and “Ghost World,” Terry Zwigoff’s scathingly funny account of two female high-school “outsiders.”
Still nothing quite prepares one for the frankly sexual nature of Minnie Goetze’s 15-year-old exploration of the adult world. It helps that the story is set in the hippie-dippy, drug-laden San Francisco of 1976, before the onset of AIDS yet deep into the era of “Do your own thing.”
This is not, thank goodness, a cautionary tale nor does it ever assume a moralistic tone. Rather its creators portray a female minor anxious to gain acceptance and a sense of purpose through adult sexual experiences while her troubled mother, so caught up in her own hedonistic life, remains clueless about what’s going on in her daughter’s life.
It feels honest at all times rather than sensationalistic. Which is why Heller, in an astonishingly assured directorial debut, can get away with venturing into once forbidden territory.
For years male filmmakers have pushed boozy, R-rated comedies about horny teenage boys desperate to get laid no matter what the consequences. The hypocrisy of this double standard — what’s okay for guys is most definitely not for girls who must in all these teen movies guard the preciousness of their bodies — is exposed forever in “Diary.”
For Minnie Goetze wants to get laid just as badly as any of those hormonal boys. So badly in fact that she seduces the nearest male — her mom’s boyfriend.
Powley, a sweet-faced, dark-haired English actress of 21 (when the film was shot), convincingly plays an American girl of 15, discovering her own post-pubescent body even as she stares at its naked form in a bedroom mirror, amazed at the sensations it’s producing in her.
The experience of bedding Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), 35, satisfies nothing but rather intensifies her desire for more sex —with Monroe, with a boy her own age (who reacts with bewilderment to her demands) and then she kisses a girl.
Alcohol plays a role here too although more with her mom Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), who since her divorce from Minnie’s distant (in terms of geography and emotions) dad, Pascal (Christopher Meloni), has adopted a wild lifestyle with like-minded friends that includes very little sobriety. Thus her complete ignorance about an affair going on right under her nose.
Gloeckner’s book is part graphic novel/comic book and part fictional diary. Emulating this Heller lets the screen lapse into animation (by Icelandic animator Sara Gunnarsdottir) to capture her heroine’s sketches and drawings modeled after the work of Twisted Sister comic illustrator Aline Kominsky. These figments of her imagination, many of them phallic, inhabit her waking life.
With her girlfriend (Madeleine Waters) Minnie roams the wilder backstreets of 1976 San Francisco on the prowl for new adventures involving sex and drugs before hooking up with an even more adventurous young woman (Margarita Levieva)
The film’s adults, in particular Monroe and Charlotte, aren’t treated unkindly but instead as adults who never fully enjoyed their own childhoods and thus never fully grew out of them.
Charlotte, who has two daughters, is a bad mother but not an unloving one. She just never should have had children.
Monroe is a child molester in the eyes of the law. But the film not only doesn’t render any verdict, legal or otherwise, it sees him as the object of erotic obsession by a young girl in her single-minded pursuit of her own selfish happiness and fulfillment.
And that can last only so long before Minnie moves on to new obsessions. To be young is to be fickle too.
The exterior of Minnie’s house is usually dark while Bay Area exteriors look like some of the movie melodramas of that era. D.P. Brandon Trost lights and shoots the movie in a hazy light almost as if slightly overexposed.
While this realism contrasts nicely with the animation fever dreams, it also brings a little distance. You’re looking at a different zeitgeist, a different culture.
In the background, mostly on TV, the saga of the Patty Hearst kidnapping trial plays out with its questions about women as either victims or individuals responsible for themselves.
That question too haunts the story of Minnie Goetze: How responsible is she for what happens to her? If she wants these experiences, how responsible are the adults for letting it happen? And why does society react so differently when young males explore their sexuality as opposed to when young girls do?
“Diary” intends to supply no answer. This is the diary of one teenage girl, not all teenage girls.
Powley is a marvel in this film. She’s done quite a lot of work in the U.K. on stage and television and is poised to appear in several upcoming films. Her main quality here is honesty. She is Minnie and truthful and faithful to her throughout a movie that has her on-screen for nearly the entire movie.
Skarsgård and Wiig play their adults as ones lost in a moral morass encouraged by counterculture excess and delusion. These are particularly brave performances since in another movie they would be “bad” characters, yet here they are as lost and bewildered as the teenagers themselves. Nothing in their childhoods or adolescence has prepared them for adulthood.
Heller originally adapted Gloeckner’s material as a play in which she played the role of Minnie. She has moved on (thanks in part to the Sundance Labs) to further open up and develop this hypnotic and disturbing inquiry into the life of a teenage girl.
Indeed “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” may become the “Catcher in the Rye” for young women.
Opens: August 7, 2015 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production: Caviar, Cold Iron Pictures, Archer Gray
Cast: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Christopher Meloni, Kristen Wiig, Abby Wait, Madeleine Waters, Margarita Levieva
Director-screenwriter: Marielle Heller
Based on the novel by: Phoebe Gloeckner
Producers: Anne Carey, Bert Hamelinck, Madeline Samit, Miranda Bailey
Executive producers: Michael Sagol, Amanda Marshall, Jorma Taccone, Amy Nauiokas
Director of photography: Brandon Trost
Production designer: Jonah Markowitz
Music: Nate Heller
Costume designer: Carmen Grande
Editors: Marie-Hélène Dozo, Koen Timmerman
R raging, 101 minutes