Last week, I sat down to watch The Dairy of a Teenage Girl at my local indie theater. It was 5:00 PM on a Tuesday and the place was empty. Just myself and two thirtysomething ladies celebrating a birthday. Beforehand they were in good spirts. Chatting about an upcoming dinner, playfully arguing over who was going to foot the bill, etc. Fifteen minutes later, they exited the theater in disgust.
Maybe they were expecting a charming coming of age story. Something along the lines of My Girl, Secret Garden or Sixteen Candles. Perhaps they missed the giant R rating on the movie poster. Maybe they saw the quirky trailer with the banjo soundtrack and thought, “That might be fun!”
What they didn’t expect was the story of a 15 year old girl discovering her sexuality by having sex with her mother’s 35 year old boyfriend. Over and over again. In graphic detail.
A dark, uncomfortable story painted with a wistful, almost carefree brush, The Diary of a Teenage Girl focuses on the complex emotions inherent in discovering the pleasures and consequences of sex through the eyes of an awkward yet intelligent girl. It’s not the playful coming of age story the trailer advertises but Diary manages to illuminate rather than disgust, even when it’s being a bit disgusting.
The teenage girl in question is Minnie (Bel Powley), a bright 15 year old living in 1970’s San Francisco. A child of divorce, Minnie deftly manages to balance her drug addict mother (Kristen Wiig), her intellectual yet distant father (Christopher Meloni) and Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), her mother’s new boyfriend. Upon losing her virginity to Monroe, Minnie is assaulted with a wave of complex, confusing emotions. Old enough to understand her choices but too young to process them properly, Minnie quickly descends into a dangerous cycle of sex, drugs and bad decisions.
It’s hard to talk about Diary without mentioning the graphic nature of the story. The movie features about a dozen sex scenes, mostly between Minnie and a man twice her age. While it’s all in service to the story and brutally honest, sensitive viewers may want to steer clear.
But once you get past the skin crawling setup, there’s a treasure trove of excellent writing, acting and storytelling underneath. Powley is extraordinary as the confused yet brainy Minnie. Equal parts brave and vulnerable, Powley’s pain, joy and frustration feels natural and true to the character. Kristen Wiig injects a sad humanity into what could have been a clichéd “drugged out mom” role while Skarsgard deftly walks the line between creepy and conflicted as Minnie’s love interest.
The performances are built on a rock solid screenplay, penned by first time director Marielle Heller. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, the film treats the uncomfortable subject matter with equal parts respect and dark humor. By choosing to focus on Millie’s immature reactions to her very mature situation, Heller creates a relatable character, even if you’ve never been a teenage girl before. Even the ending, which is annoyingly consequence free, manages to feel honest and genuine.
Some of the film’s best moments are the small, well timed animated sequences lifted straight from the pages of the graphic novel. Minnie’s main coping mechanism is disappearing into her growing love of cartooning which is vividly brought to the screen. Moments like the world around Minnie’s bed disappearing into starlight and her sprouting wings during an LSD trip is beautiful and illuminating.
In thinking back to the horrified pair of movie goers, I can’t blame them for walking out. They weren’t prepared for what awaited them and to be fair, neither was I. But I’m glad I stuck it out. While The Diary of a Teenage Girl isn’t for everyone, it’s still a well-crafted coming of age story full of wit, pain and in the end, personal growth. Even if the trailer lies straight to your face.
Score: 8 out of 10
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Writer, gamer and beer geek, Bill Tucker writes words for a number of sites and publications. He currently blogs for the Entertainment Weekly Community and The Austinot as well as contributes film reviews to a number of literary sites. He’s also a published author of creepy short fiction and uncomfortable essays. His currently hangs his hat in Austin, Texas. All of his everything can be found on http://www.thesurrealityproject.com