Now, this isn’t your standard coming of age movie. Heller’s adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel is explicit, while pulling no punches as it explores the sexual awakening of the film’s lead, Minnie. Taking place in 1976 San Francisco, Minnie is exposed to quite the liberal surroundings, in which she takes full advantage of as she begins to discover herself sexually at the age of fifteen.
The film’s graphic novel roots play through wonderfully on the screen, as Minnie is an aspiring illustrator herself and her countless drawings around her room and in her notebook frequently come to life. Comic book like animation is also applied over a lot of the live action material throughout, beautifully animated by Sara Gunnarsdóttir, and while these bits are often played for jokes, the animation also accents Minnie’s world to spectacular effect.
The biggest reason the film works as well as it does though is Bel Powley’s performance at the heart of the film. Asked to play a good chunk of years younger than she is, Powley is never once not convincing as an immature and adventurous teenager trying to understand their sexual world. Powley isn’t just convincing because she looks incredibly young for her age, her attitude and behavior is just pitch perfect for the role. Gloeckner and Heller deserve a lot of credit as well for crafting a story and voice for Minnie that is progressive and thoughtful, yet never loses the perspective of whose head we are actually experiencing the world through.
The script is also quite funny, and Heller handles the tone of the film wonderfully as the subject matter can get quite taboo for audiences. A lot of the awkwardness that might arise in some viewers is cut beautifully with a punch of humor just at the right moment. Powley’s comedic timing is also just impeccable here, as she has the perfect facial expression to sell the humor of potentially messed up moments.
I’ve mentioned how the film might be seen as “taboo” or dark, but at its heart The Diary of a Teenage Girl is about exploring the inner workings of this girl who is becoming a woman. Minnie might be blunt and open to anything, but Heller does a great job of showing how Minnie really has nowhere else to turn. The biggest tragedy of this film might be the fact that no one is guiding Minnie on her journey. She’s trapped in her brain wondering if she is weird and messed up, and if someone, or even society, was there to tell her that all of these feelings are ok, maybe Minnie wouldn’t have ended up in a couple of potentially dangerous situations. That’s not to say she didn’t learn anything. Minnie might be acting out against social norms, but Minnie will be the first to tell you that those norms are bullshit and she is better for it on the other end of things. The film also never loses sight that your family, even though you might not ever be remotely on the same page, can still be a place of love and safety.
Beyond the aforementioned great work by Powley, Kristen Wiig is also quite excellent as her mother. Wiig keeps playing this darker characters in films, but there is always something alive inside her; for better or worse for the character. Wiig is asked to react more than anything to world around her, but she shines in the more tender moments she shares with her co-stars. The other main player in the film is Alexander Skarsgård, who becomes a romantic partner to both Minnie and her mother. Skarsgård’s character is a pedophile, but he does a nice job of allowing us to engage with him, instead of just sitting there and shaming him. A large reason why we are able to make this disconnect is because we are coming from Minnie’s perspective on all of this, but if the actor plays that part wrong everything with him would be unwatchable. Thankfully, Skarsgård nails the part. Christopher Meloni also pops up for a couple of scenes as Minnie’s ex-step-father and gets a number of the film’s best laughs.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a funny coming of age tale that we rarely get to see; one told from the female perspective. The film works from nearly start to finish, even if it does meander a bit in that third act, and features a standout performance from Bel Powley. Heller has also made quite the impression in her directorial debut and I look forward to what she does next. Fans of the genre should be sure to check this out; it is a take we rarely see, but need more of.