Editor’s Note: The Diary of a Teenage Girl opened in limited release August 7, 2015.
The words “remarkable,” “extraordinary,” and “assured” are often – too often in our hyperbole-driven culture – thrown around when a writer-director (a filmmaker by another name) debuts a film that excels where others merely succeed (i.e., competently), but they’re no less true, simply because they’re accurate descriptors, where The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Marielle Heller’s adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel, is concerned. While Heller may be new to filmmaking, she successfully adapted Gloeckner’s novel for the stage five years ago (she even played the title character). While not incompatible, the stage and the cinema are different mediums with different demands, different rules, and so much else, guaranteeing neither the success of Heller’s adaptation nor her direction for that matter. But succeed Heller does (“triumph” actually might be a better word).
Powley gives the kind of layered, nuanced performance often described as “fearless” or “revelatory”.
When we meet the title character, Minnie Goetz (Bel Powley), she’s walking, strolling confidently through Golden Gate Park, a smile across her face, speaking to both herself (an audio diary) and the audience. In a few brief moments, we get a sense of Minnie as young, self-aware (but still partially naïve), smart, and precocious. She’s also newly obsessed with sex, with what it means both in the moment (e.g., sensory pleasures) and what it means long-term emotionally and mentally. That’s she’s only fifteen might come as a surprise to more conservative moviegoers, but at anyone on the other side of the political and cultural divide, male or female, will be shocked but for a different reason: The shock of (self) recognition, of hormone-fueled sexuality taking control over our bodies (in expected and unexpected ways) and the questions that Minnie pointedly asks about herself while she examines herself carefully in front of a mirror, searching for clues of her romantic future in her nude body.
Despite its origin in both the printed word/published image and the stage, The Diary of a Teenage Girl never suffers from the usual problems associated with novel-to-film or play-to-film adaptations.
Whether it’s the time period (San Francisco, 1976, the never-ending Summer of Love) or changing/changed social and cultural norms, the question of morality doesn’t come up, at least not in a religious sense. Minnie doesn’t think in terms of “sin” or even “wrong,” at least not until her decisions impact others. Even then, Minnie’s desires, sexual and emotional, take precedence: She not only loses her virginity to a 35-year-old man, she loses her virginity and starts an affair with her mother Charlotte’s (Kristen Wiig) boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). Where another film and filmmaker would inject moralizing or sermonizing about Minnie and Monroe’s relationship – decidedly wrong due to their age difference and his status as her mother’s boyfriend – The Diary of a Teenage Girl doesn’t, instead tracking the relationship over several weeks and months and how it affects Minnie and Monroe both negatively and positively. Minnie’s sexual and personal journey doesn’t end with Monroe – Heller segues into other relationships or flings for Minnie – but it certainly returns to him and Minnie’s changing perception of Monroe.
Despite its origin in both the printed word/published image and the stage, The Diary of a Teenage Girl never suffers from the usual problems associated with novel-to-film or play-to-film adaptations. It rarely feels unfocused, episodic, or tangential (as do many novels adapted for film) except maybe near the end where a long-primed revelation (and its consequences) finally comes to painful fruition. Just as importantly, The Diary of a Teenage Girl never feels cramped or claustrophobic (as do many stage plays ported over to film). Despite working with an obviously limited budget (cityscape views are kept to a minimum), Heller provides more than enough visual cues (e.g., clothes, furniture, pop culture) to give moviegoers an appropriate sense of time and space. She also avoids the point-and-shoot aesthetic typical of first-time filmmakers, instead opting for a more robust, dynamic shooting and editing style that perfectly complements Minnie’s coming-of-age story.
Heller’s stage background may have contributed to her understanding something other filmmakers take years to learn (if they learn it at all): In a film dedicated to both the adventurous, outer experiences and the complex inner life of the title character like Minnie Goetz, Heller needed an uncommonly talented, expressive, risk-embracing actress, an actress she found in Bel Powley, a little-known Brit who, if The Diary of a Teenage Girl is any indication, won’t be little known for long, or simply put, shouldn’t be. Powley gives the kind of layered, nuanced performance often described as “fearless” or “revelatory” and not only because she’s frequently nude or in bed with Skarsgård’s character, but because she persuasively brings Minnie’s thoughts, fears, and desires, not to mention Minnie’s emotional vulnerability, to the surface for moviegoers comfortably ensconced on the other side of the screen to examine and, ultimately, judge.
Featuring robust and dynamic cinematography and editing and a revelatory performance by Bel Powley, Marielle Heller's The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a mature and extraordinary coming-of-age tale.