Mark Reviews Movies

The Diary of a Teenage Girl


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Marielle Heller

Cast: Bel Powley, Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgård, Christopher Meloni, Abby Wait, Miranda Bailey

MPAA Rating: R (for strong sexual content including dialogue, graphic nudity, drug use, language and drinking - all involving teens)

Running Time: 1:42

Release Date: 8/7/15 (limited); 8/14/15 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 13, 2015

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is notable for the way it almost completely lacks any form of moral judgment against its characters. One could say that's a product of the movie's setting—San Francisco in 1976, where our protagonist walks by people in various stages of undress in a public park. One could say it's an intentional subversion of society's moral prudishness when it comes to sex. It's probably both of these things, but more importantly, it's a reflection of the movie's protagonist.

She is 15 years old, is experiencing sexual urges at their most potent level up until this point in her life, has no idea how to channel them, and is confused about what they mean for her now and will mean for her in the future. She's confused enough about her physical, emotional, and sexual beings. The question of morality is one puzzle too many.

That's not to say writer/director Marielle Heller's debut movie doesn't draw moral lines. It does, but it's also wise enough to know that such lines aren't of much significance to Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley, in a very fine, bluntly honest performance).

Minnie knows when something she has done or that has been done to her is wrong (or "wrong," since the movie's outlook on some of these things seems to demand relativity-denoting quotes). Some realizations take longer to come to than others. The recognition of that wrongness (or "wrongness"), though, can only occur after she has experienced a thing for herself. She might suspect, for example, that engaging in an act of prostitution isn't something that's good for her, but it's not until she actually does it—almost by accident after a joke with a friend goes too far—that she gets that icky feeling in her gut. It's telling her that, no, that really wasn't good for her.

A movie with a simpler outlook on such things might try to assign blame for Minnie's actions—a "permissive" society, "bad" parenting, a "deviant" culture, or simply putting the blame on Minnie herself by insinuating or outright stating that she's a girl of "loose morals" or some more shaming insult. This is not one of those simpler movies. It is raw, as confused as its protagonist, and draining. All of this might be why it leaves such a hollow feeling by its conclusion. That feeling might also be the result of a few too many cutesy flourishes and a last-act trend toward the sort of "scared straight" material that the movie otherwise avoids.

At the start of the movie, Minnie announces to herself and us that she has had sex for the first time. She has decided to keep a cassette-recorded diary of her thoughts on the momentous occasion and whatever will come of it. Her first time happened after a series of flirtations that could have been innocent—a hand falling on one of her breasts and stares that lasted a little too long. She doesn't want to tell anyone, especially her mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), who, despite being a free spirit who holds parties with plenty of booze and cocaine, might not appreciate to hear this particular news.

That's because the man to whom Minnie lost her virginity is Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), her mother's 35-year-old boyfriend. He seems like a nice guy, and Minnie really appreciates the attention—especially of the sexual variety—from someone. She's insecure, staring at her naked body in the mirror and convincing herself that she's unattractive. Losing her virginity, though, gives her a boost of confidence, which leads to more experiences and additional doubts about her thoughts and actions.

Monroe, of course, should know better. Heller's screenplay (based on the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner) doesn't dwell on that fact, but it also never doubts that Monroe is a master manipulator and abuser who takes advantage of Minnie and her mother for reasons that we'll never fully understand (Skarsgård, for his part, provides an eerie performance that is equal parts disarmingly charming and utterly pathetic).

This is, again, a story told from and attempting to recreate Minnie's perspective, and as such, the "should know better" part for her is that Monroe should love her in the same way she loves him. It's a naïve attitude, but it would be foolish to expect a 15-year-old to fully comprehend this man's actions. Then again, Minnie manipulates Monroe, too, making sure he sees the hickey she received from a sexual encounter with a classmate (who becomes terrified of and insecure about how her sexual awareness exceeds his, leading to yet more feelings of shame for her). Does that make her culpable in some way? Whatever one might think of that question, Heller doesn't betray the character with any easy answer.

The movie does somewhat betray this character and her situation with some animated imagery that bleeds into reality (It's meant to express that she's artistic, which we already know from the fact that she draws, and the gimmick itself is starting to feel like a cliché). The final act, climaxing in the paranoia and potential threats of a drug-induced bender, is a bit too tidy in terms of straightforward moral panic, too. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is undeniably bold in its candor, but it leaves us feeling empty.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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