Compelling performances and inventive illustration intertwine to make The Diary of a Teenage Girl one of the frankest coming-of-age tales in recent years.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
We all remember our first time, right? C’mon, you know what I mean. Don’t be shy. I’m not talking overseas trips here. If you catch my eyebrow-wiggling drift and can cast your mind back that far, you’ll probably have a fondness for Marielle Heller’s nostalgic and racy coming-of-age tale, The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Bursting with enthusiasm, and infused with dashes of biting honesty and impartiality, this is one risqué encounter worth shelling out for.
The film centres on Minnie (Bel Powley), a 15-year-old artist who embarks on a journey of sexual discovery and experimentation through an affair with Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), a much older man who just so happens to be also dating Minnie’s mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig). Discovering herself and her sexual tastes along the way, Minnie’s journey sees her transition from meek schoolgirl to expressive young adult in an effective and balanced screenplay that was also penned by Heller.
As her curiosity between the sheets starts to grow, so does Minnie’s inability to stay afloat; completely out her depth and surrounded by others who’re much greater in years and maturity, Minnie’s exploits aren’t glamourised in any sense of the word. Instead, Heller goes to great lengths to ensure that her naïveté bubbles to the surface, and soon enough the story has manifested itself into something messy, raw and piercingly candid.
Despite the retro 70’s San Francisco setting, Heller doesn’t don the rose-tinted goggles for long; instead, we’re treated to a film that reveals both Minnie and Charlotte’s insecurities and flaws for what they really are, rather than glossing over them. They don’t feel like flat portraits to a bygone era, rather a more of a well-rounded collection of characters that simply don’t mesh with our own 21st Century sensibilities.
Much of the film’s brilliance can be attributed to its compelling lead actress; forced to tackle the confronting narrative head-on, Powley displays immense range and talent in choosing to not tip-toe around some pretty tough material. Minnie’s arc doesn’t stray too far from the well-worn coming-of-age template, but Powley brings an emotional depth to her character that elevates the film from just good to great.
Skarsgård is equal parts charming and seedy as Monroe, the 30-something man whom Minnie falls for. Despite being lumped with largely unlikeable character, Skarsgård was able to extract a memorable performance alongside Powley. Wiig and Christopher Meloni also deserve props for their respective roles.
Where the film really comes into its own is through the inventive animation sequences that are used to illustrate Minnie’s vivid teenage imagination; colourful flowers and birds flourish from inside her head whilst grimy schoolbook sketches pay homage to the works of cartoonists such as Aline Kominsky and Phoebe Gloeckner, the latter of which penned the original graphic novel this film is adapted from.
For a while it feels like Heller’s film is calmly coasting towards a conclusion that is bereft of emotional weight or consequence; with Minnie simply skating along through a string of sexual encounters and acid trips, our two main characters spent just a touch too long breaking up and making up for my liking. That being said, everything does come good in the end; secrets are uncovered, lessons are learnt and Heller’s parting shot is a suitably resonant and fitting message that feels most at home within the coming-of-age mould this film fills. I’m going to give The Diary of a Teenage Girl 4 out of 5 stars.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is available in Australian cinemas from Thursday September 24
Images courtesy of Sony Pictures