DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL screened as part of the US Dramatic Competition at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. For additional screen times, head here.
Let’s be honest, “coming of age” is a pretty tired genre. Despite this, it’s right up there as one of my favourites (along with “quirky robots just trying to make it in the world” and “art heist movies starring George Clooney”). I’ve seen a lot of great coming of age stories, and I’ve seen a lot of okay ones, and then there’s movies like Marielle Heller’s Diary of a Teenage Girl. This is the kind of bright and beautiful, messy and confusing, hilarious and relatable romp that, real talk, should have every woman in the audience breathing a sigh of,”Yes, someone finally got it.”
Diary of a Teenage Girl follows the sexual awakening of fifteen-year-old Minnie Goetz (Bel Powley). We meet Minnie with a satisfied smirk on her face, just having experienced her very first time (“I had sex today,” she quips proudly). Once home, she decides she need to document this on a tape recorder. There are a lot of feelings to sort through as a young woman, so it only makes sense. And so begins Minnie’s diary.
Minnie lives with her mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) and younger sister, Gretel, in San Fransisco. Her free-spirit mother prefers the partying lifestyle, but still manages to dispense occasional words of wisdom (wear a skirt to show off your waist because you won’t have that body forever). Her little sister is always spying on her. And her cat, Oreo, doesn’t seem to notice that she looks different now that she’s “a woman.” Charlotte’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), is a regular fixture in the house too, often lazing around on the couch, drinking or talking about his budding mail-order vitamin business (it’ll be huge, he swears). Oh, and it was to Monroe that Minnie lost her virginity and is now having a secret affair with. Eep.
Portraying a relationship like this is tricky business, but director Marielle Heller finds a beautiful balance between sleazy exploitation and traumatic melodrama. Minnie is real and honest, one moment examining her blossoming body in the mirror, worried about being fat, and in another expressing frustration about always wanting to have sex, to have a body touching hers. She is reckless. She is wise beyond her years. She wants to drop out of high school and be an artist. She experiments with drugs. She is a scared little girl. She owns her body. She is fifteen. Powley brings Minnie to life in a way that is going to have people talking for a long time. Her performance is so invigorating and she has those beautifully strange, rounded features that capture the light just so and seem to make her glow.
Powley is supported immensely by a stellar supporting cast. I love seeing Wiig in more subtle roles and her party loving, cocaine snorting, manically cleaning Charlotte is superb. And I suppose it’s a credit to Skarsgard that he so effortlessly turned into That Guy. You know, the kind of unhinged, soppy man who would say things like “I just can’t help myself” about his relationship with a teenage girl. Oh, and Christopher Meloni makes a brief appearance as a no-nonsense father who taught Minnie important lessons, like when shaking hands make sure you look the person in the eye and think, “I am better than you.” It’s also important to note, for reasons, that his name is Pascal and he wears turtlenecks.
Diary of a Teenage Girl is lovingly adapted from a graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner and with Minnie aspiring to be an artist, it only makes sense that the story is punctuated with amazing, distinct, weird animations. They twist and curl around Minnie, an embodiment of her tangled feelings, an extension of her growth and exploration into womanhood. The smokey, warm haze of the ’70s resonates throughout, with an amazing attention to detail embedded within the production and costume design (so many bell bottoms, so little time) and clean cinematography.
This is one of those films that, I can tell, will only get better after multiple viewings. Seriously, how could you ever get tired of being a part of Minnie’s world?
Siân Melton is covering Sundance for us live from Park City, Utah. Read about her other work, including her Toronto-based film series The MUFF Society, below.