'The Diary of a Teenage Girl': Sundance Review

A strikingly intimate look at a teenager's sexual life in an outstanding debut film.

Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgard and Kristen Wiig star in this story of a teenager who sleeps with her mom's boyfriend.

In this gutsy, intimate and assured debut, Marielle Heller accomplishes just about everything all young independent filmmakers say they want to do when starting out: to create a personal, fresh, distinctive work in their own “voice” that will then, of course, make their careers. Heller has pulled this off in a remarkably vibrant and frank look at one precocious teen’s emerging sexual life a film with the stuff of life coursing through its veins and sex very much on its brain. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is the kind of film Sundance prays for every year: one that indelibly puts on the map a talented director the festival can then forever claim as one of its own. This will be one of the significant indie titles of the year and a good commercial bet a film many young women will see more than once.

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Many women might ask, "Where has this film been all my life?" And men might well ask the same. Such is the curious reader or viewer’s enduring interest in any insightful work that so frankly and uninhibitedly addresses the female sex drive, its mysteries, its contradictions and its complex impulses. The subject never gets old, even if American films have often skittishly avoided it or tiptoed through it lightly.

In this adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s popular and innovative 2002 “hybrid” words-and-pictures novel — which Heller first adapted and starred in onstage in 2010 — the writer-director jumps right into the deep end with Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley), who tells her tape recorder that she just had sex for the first time. More than that — it was with her mother’s boyfriend.

In a fast-moving jumble of images and confessions, Minnie runs through the circumstances and her sexual feelings. Standing naked in front of a mirror, she ponders her breasts, worries that she’s fat and isn’t sure whether she’s pretty or not. In fact, Powley is one of those endlessly watchable performers who can look completely ordinary in one shot and captivating in the next. Her face has sort of Aubrey Plaza-like puffy contours that, similarly, make her look different from various angles and in assorted conditions.

One teenage fear she admits to concerning her plunge into the sexual deep end is that, if she doesn't take advantage of the opportunity she has now, she may never have another chance. And so starts her secret affair with Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), the rangy, handsome and ineffectual boyfriend of her mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), a boozy bohemian who, in 1976, still has one foot in the San Francisco hippie lifestyle.

It’s an evocative moment in cultural history, and the film captures it nicely; the revolution may not have happened, but the Patty Hearst kidnapping saga is all over TV, the Castro scene is starting to happen, and psychedelia is about to give way to disco and early manifestations of punk.

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The sexual revolution, meanwhile, is raging right at home. Rather laughably confessing that he didn’t imagine Minnie was a virgin until it was too late, Monroe has her over to his place whenever possible and pretty quickly brings her up to speed sexually. Minnie keeps recording her most intimate thoughts and, inspired by the work of Twisted Sister comix illustrator Aline Kominsky (R. Crumb’s future wife), pushes ahead in her drawings, which vividly come to life onscreen as fanciful, sometimes-explicit animation that adorns the images.

Minnie’s internal life maintains its dominance over concerns regarding a conventional narrative. All the same, the film bobs and weaves between the two in a fluid, unpretentious way that keeps Minnie’s direct connection with the viewer alive, while noting what otherwise goes down. Hanging over everything is the question of what’s going to happen when Mom finds out, but this is scarcely mentioned.

Minnie sometimes cavorts around town with her friend Kimmie (Madeleine Waters), who brags about her frequently employed oral skills but is too scared to have full-on sex. Minnie hooks up with a rich boy her own age, who’s taken aback by her evident expertise, then connects with a stunning young lady (Margarita Levieva) who leads her to the dangerous outer limits of the drug scene.

Nearly every scene has a punch of some kind: a revelation, insight, burst of inspiration or a flight of fancy, something interesting going on that keenly relates to human nature, its instincts, pleasures and foibles. More than a construct, the film feels like a river of feelings and thoughts, much like a diary usually is one spiked with important events, to be sure, but more like signposts marking points of interest along the way, rather than formal devices such as chapters in a book, acts in a play or movements in a symphony.

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A brief return visit from Minnie’s professorial dad (Christopher Meloni) does no one much good, and when Charlotte finally learns what’s been going on between her boyfriend and her daughter, it's by the most obvious means imaginable (other than just walking in on them). By this point, it is amply clear that Heller (and Gloeckner before her) is not interested in moralizing or assigning blame but, rather, in closely examining the development of a girl into a woman, of discovering one's identity and becoming confident in asserting it. Parallel to that, although less universal, is the emergence of an artistic voice, as expressed through Minnie’s recorded voiceovers and even more through her pen-and-ink drawings an acknowledgement of Gloeckner’s own work.

Having staged and performed the work beforehand was necessarily of enormous benefit in terms of Heller's focus on how to transform the material for different media. Her self-assurance behind the camera is evident in every scene, as it is in her presentation of Minnie through Powley, a British actress obviously without inhibitions, who is entirely winning in her first film to hit the big screen.

His obvious good looks largely unremarked upon here, Skarsgard has a tricky role that could easily have been portrayed as a scummy, loathsome predator. Instead, his Monroe is a laid-back guy of no detectable ambition who just generally goes with the flow. Not cast to exploit her comic skills, Wiig sharply etches a woman whose bearings, willpower and sense of standards may have been diminished by her immersion in the counterculture.

Without concern for prettiness, Brandon Trost’s exceedingly mobile camera is always right in there where it needs to be with the characters and nicely captures the crisp, airy San Francisco atmosphere. The period touches in Jonah Markowitz’s production design and Carmen Grande’s costumes all ring true.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Production: Caviar, Cold Iron Pictures, Archer Gray

Cast: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgard, Christopher Meloni, Kristen Wiig, Abby Wait, Madeleine Waters, Margarita Levieva

Director: Marielle Heller

Screenwriter: Marielle Heller, based on the novel by Phoebe Gloeckner

Producers: Anne Carey, Bert Hamelinck, Madeline Samit, Miranda Bailey

Executive producers: Michael Sagol, Amanda Marshall, Jorma Taccone, Amy Nauiokas

Director of photography: Brandon Trost

Production designer: Jonah Markowitz

Costume designer: Carmen Grande

Editors: Marie-Helene Dozo, Koen Timmerman

Music: Nate Heller

Casting: Nina Henninger

102 minutes