Ooh, this looked good. Really good. Based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s comic book of the same name, The Diary Of A Teenage Girl looked to be crammed full of teenage tropes and 1970s counter-culture – as well as some inventive uses of comic-book stylings. Directed by Marielle Heller, who also adapted the comic into a play, it’s a sideswipe at the usual cutesy teen rom-coms that make up much of cinemagoing fodder – and that’s to its credit.
Fifteen year old Minnie (played by the rather amazing Bel Powley) is growing up with her unconventional mother (Kristen Wiig) in the louche world of 70s San Francisco. Her sexual awakening comes at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), leading her into deeper musings on what it means to be a woman in a sexualised world, what women do for sex, why women like sex… yes, there’s lots of sex here, but much more besides. Minnie’s a complex character – childlike even as she’s shagging the grown-up Monroe – which raises all sorts of uncomfortable questions, as does the uncompromising use of drugs shown on film, as well as the idea of selling your body for cold, hard cash – and for the joy of sex.
It’s a challenging film to watch, lightened by moments of humour (Minnie’s diary is deliberately softer in tone than the events surrounding her) and the use of cartoons to show Minnie’s character from different angles is handled extremely well. Heller’s knowledge and love of the subject matter is clear, and even though the themes being dissected are raw and uncompromising, the film never seems to get bogged down in moralities or confusion. Heller’s clear about who her characters are – the headstrong Minnie, her feckless mother, Monroe’s weak and spineless man in a woman’s world – which means the story moves along at a swift pace, sweeping through the counter-culture revolution and ensuring we realise that Minnie is a girl-woman who doesn’t understand the consequences of her sexual actions.
I thoroughly enjoyed it. Heller’s eye for curious little details – Patty Hearst’s kidnap woven into the story, Minnie and Monroe lying in bed together, him so obviously the adult, Wiig’s sorrowful mother, cleaning the house on coke – mean that the film’s inventive and smart, with a semi-dreamlike quality that softens the harder edges. Hopefully Heller will make more movies because based on this, her cinematic debut, she has a true talent for storytelling.