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Review: The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

Directed by: Marielle Heller

Premise: Based on the novel by Phoebe Gloeckner. A teenager (Bel Powley) growing up in 1970s San Francisco has a sexual awakening and carries on a relationship with her mother’s boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård)

What Works: The teenage coming-of-age tale is a major fixture of Hollywood from Sixteen Candles to Juno to Boyhood. But as popular as this genre is with filmmakers, it’s rare to see one with as much honesty and audacity as The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Bel Powley plays Minnie, a teenager who discovers her sexuality and Powley exposes herself both physically and emotionally. She was in her early twenties when this movie was filmed but she plays a high schooler terrifically. Powley allows Minnie to be naïve but not stupid and she taps into the teenage headspace without being obnoxious. Minnie lives with her mother and mother’s boyfriend played by Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgård. Wiig is especially good playing the “fun mom” who is failing as a parent and Skarsgård throws himself in the role of a despicable guy and makes him a bit empathetic, if not likable. One of the ironies of today’s culture is that young women are sexualized in media to an extraordinary degree and yet there is very little in cinema that deals frankly or honestly with women’s sexual lives. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is distinguished by its boldness and earnestness. This movie deals with a number of hot button issues, namely a relationship between a teenage girl and an older man, but The Diary of a Teenage Girl isn’t a victim narrative. It’s not that the filmmakers believe the relationship is appropriate; they trust in the viewer to recognize the true nature of this relationship and instead spend their time exploring the complexity of the title character’s identity and her evolving understanding of herself. There is a lot of sexuality in this movie but there is an authentic awkwardness to much of it that gives the film an honest voice. The Diary of a Teenage Girl isn’t just about lust either. Body is linked to identity and the filmmakers understand, as their title character does, that sexuality can be a transformative experience. There is also a lot in this picture about desire and wanting to be desired and how that relates to our notions of love and self-worth.

What Doesn’t: The Diary of a Teenage Girl is rather extreme in regards to Minnie’s sexual experiences. This isn’t your average woman’s sexual awakening. As a result, it may be a mistake to say that this film represents the de facto story of a teenage girl’s sexual revelation either in terms of the title character’s experiences or even just her desires. But we shouldn’t expect the movie to do that. The film provides a smart and honest story of one fictional woman’s experiences and it does that quite well. The conclusion of The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a bit too tidy. Minnie and her mother come to a significantly tense place in their relationship and the movie sets up a long term conflict. But rather than drawing out the mother-daughter animus, the movie resolves all of this pretty quickly. Minnie’s estranged father (Christopher Meloni) figures into the first half of the picture and his presence is curious. Her relationship with her mother’s boyfriend has all sorts of Freudian implications but the filmmakers don’t make much of this in the sequences involving her biological father. The father is on the periphery of the action and for the first half of the movie there is the threat that he will take Minnie and her sister away from their dysfunctional home and thereby end Minnie’s relationship. But he fades to the background in the second half of the movie.

Bottom Line: The Diary of a Teenage Girl presents provocative ideas in a movie that is well-acted and creatively shot. The film visualizes the experience of a reading someone’s diary, making us privy to her unfiltered thoughts. 

Episode: #579 (January 24, 2016)