Thursday, August 20, 2015

Movie Review: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Directed by: Marielle Heller.   
Written by: Marielle Heller based on the novel by Phoebe Gloeckner.
Starring: Bel Powley (Minnie), Kristen Wiig (Charlotte), Alexander Skarsgård (Monroe), Christopher Meloni (Pascal), Miranda Bailey (Andrea), Abby Wait (Gretel), Austin Lyon (Ricky Wasserman), Margarita Levieva (Tabatha).  

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a film about 15-year old Minnie (an extraordinary Bel Powley) discovering her sexuality, and exploring it without shame. She likes sex, and ends up making what most people would consider mistakes in choosing her partners – all of whom exploit her in one way or another, even if she doesn’t quite see it like that. The movie actually does show her cut off a couple different sexual relationships when they start veering towards territory she doesn’t like, or feel comfortable with – and admitting that she has made some mistakes, but still she refuses to feel bad about them. Nor is she befallen with great tragedy or lasting consequences – this film isn’t a warning that sex will lead to nothing but STDs, pregnancy or some other dire consequences. It is a movie that will likely make many very uncomfortable – it doesn’t judge any of its characters for their actions, even if more than a few of them would be considered horrific by most.

Minnie, along with her younger sister Gretel, is being raised by Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), who has just got out of a long term marriage with Minnie’s step father Pascal (Christopher Meloni) and is apparently eager to make up for lost time. The year is 1976, the place is San Francisco, and Charlotte starts partying practically every night – with drugs and booze, and new boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). One night at a bar – which Charlotte pushed the pair into going to toward – Minnie and Monroe get to talking, which leads to a lot more than talking. She says he wants him to “fuck” her, and after a limited amount of resistance, he agrees, starting an affair that will run through the movie. Monroe is clearly a creep, but even with a 1970s mustache, he isn’t the one dimensional kiddie rapist that we would expect to see in a movie like this. He’s immature – perhaps as immature as Minnie – who manipulates and uses him as much as he does with her. This certainly doesn’t excuse his behavior – but it does allow for more context than we normally see in a movie like this. Besides, Minnie doesn’t feel used – she feels liberated. Once she discovers how much she likes sex, she continues to explore that – in a series of encounters that verge on becoming dangerous, without ever quite getting there. When a classmate she is sleeping with tells her that her “aggressiveness” scares him, he’s out of the picture. When her first girlfriend tries to pimp her out for drugs, she’s gone as well. Her sometimes partner in crime is Andrea (Miranda Bailey) – her blonde best friend who is as willing as Minnie to push the boundaries past the normally expected levels.

Now, admittedly, this probably sounds like an exploitation picture like the fictional Rochelle, Rochelle from Seinfeld about a “young girl’s strange erotic journey from Milan to Minsk” – which in other hands is how this material undoubtedly would have played. But the film is written for the screen and directed by Marielle Heller and based on a novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, and they keep the focus squarely on Minnie throughout. The camera respects Powley, the actress, and Minnie the character with none of the usual shots we would get here. The sex scenes – many of them have Powley at least partially dressed – concentrate on her, and her pleasure, not the other way around. It locks into her perspective, and stays there. The film works, in large part, because Powley is so good as Minnie – she was in her 20s when he made the film, but looks like a teenager in the film – with a kind of awkward walk (and more awkward run) that at times make her seem more childlike – although throughout the course of the film, she loses part of this. The movie works because it gets that being a teenager is literally being caught in between being a child and being an adult – which means sometimes you’re one, and sometimes you’re another, and often those times crash into each other, as happens often here. It also works because the two other key performances are excellent as well. If Kristen Wiig weren’t a SNL veteran, she would probably get more credit for becoming an Indie Queen – doing great work in a series of small movies. Here, he’s playing a woman who is largely a narcissistic – but not a completely hideous one who doesn’t care about her daughter – just one who doesn’t know what the hell is going on with her. Skarsgaard is excellent as well – a kind of awkward teenage in a grown man’s body – who drifts from one thing to another with “big plans” (he’s going to start a mail order vitamin business and then buy a boat), when really all he does is get drunk or stoned, and have sex with either Charlotte or Minnie. He’s a creep – but doesn’t see himself that way.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl doesn’t judge its characters, nor does it endorse their behavior. It is an honest exploration of this girl discovering her sexuality, and owning her decisions. It’s rare to see a movie like this – it walks a very fine line between, and does it very well.

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