Sunday, August 9, 2015

Review: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
There have been enough films about young men's coming of age - and sexuality - to constitute an entire genre, but similarly themed films about young women are far more scarce - that is, unless you turn to the French, such as Catherine Breillat's unforgettable "Fat Girl" (as well as several other of that filmmaker's provocative titles).

But Marielle Heller's "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" is an unabashedly frank picture about a young girl coming of age in 1976 San Francisco and her raging hormones. The movie should be more disturbing than it is, considering that Minnie (Bel Powley), a comic book obsessed artist who becomes sexually involved with her mother's boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard), who is - how shall we put it - very age inappropriate. Minnie's mother (Kristen Wiig, handling a dramatic role like a pro) is, naturally, unaware of the burgeoning relationship as she is more often than not with booze in hand or cocaine in nose.

And, possibly, the reason why the film isn't as disturbing as you might think is because Skarsgard's Monroe, while very obviously completely in the wrong, isn't the aggressor. This isn't a film about a youth corrupted at the hands of an adult that should know better. Minnie is the one who pursues the relationship, mostly because she receives little attention from boys her own age and is afraid that Monroe could be her only chance for sex. It sounds a little creepier on paper, but "Diary" is a film about female empowerment, not victimization.

Powley is very good in a role that takes a fair amount of guts and the supporting cast - Skarsgard, Wiig and Christopher Meloni as Pascal, Minnie's sarcastic father - is very good. If "Diary" has any fault, it's that while the fact that a film about a young woman's sexual coming of age is a rare thing, Heller's movie often relies on some of the same storytelling tropes you'd find in a male-centric counterpart. There's also a series of scenes toward the film's end involving Minnie becoming involved with another young woman that feel a little undercooked.

Still, the film is funny, refreshingly vulgar (in that, while it doesn't go out of its way to offend, it also doesn't tip toe around its occasionally raunchy material) and well performed. The movie is set in the 1970s, but it's not beholden to emphasizing the setting, other than some obvious choices in dress and decor and some well-picked soundtrack choices.

Both Heller and Powley are talents to watch and "Diary" is further evidence that there's a need for more women filmmakers looking to tell female-centric stories.  "Diary" picture is a solid and unique entry into the coming of age canon.

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