The Diary of a Teenage Girl is the first film from writer/director, Marielle Heller. It is based on the graphic novel of the same name by Phoebe Gloeckner. It follows a young teenager, Minnie (Bel Powley), who is living with her mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) in 70s San Francisco. After she experiences sex for the first time with her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), her life feels completely new as she goes through a sexual awakening.
After experiencing many disappointments out of most of the festival darlings that have come out this year, I’m glad to say that The Diary of a Teenage Girl is not only one of the best films of the year, but it might just be one of the great coming-of-age films period. The film tackles a subject matter that is profoundly tough and with any lesser talent involved behind and in front of the camera, it would have most definitely resorted to either being a film full of cheap and exploitative jokes or a regressive, sex-shaming spectacle. What the film does so well is its ability to reserve any judgment towards the characters, while at the same time not feeling like we’re simply observing from a distance with a major disconnect. It’s a film that keeps things intimate with the characters and their thoughts and feelings. It allows us to empathize and understand them. And that goes for everybody, not just our lead, nobody is the film’s punching-bag and nobody is treated without a sense of dignity.
The success of the film boils down to two people, and the first one is Marielle Heller. Nothing about TDOATG feels like it’s something from a first-timer. Her direction comes across as confident, informed and seasoned to perfection. There are wonderful touches and flourishes that she brings to the screen that I hardly see even in some veteran indie directors. I was particularly fond of the occasional bits of animation inspired by the aesthetics of comic artist, Aline Kominsky-Crumb. I assume they were done by Sara Gunnarsdóttir, who was credited for Animation in the credits, so major props to her for contributing something very unique and special to the film. Also, a quick shout-out should go to Brandon Trost for his great work as the film’s cinematographer. However, it’s not just the fantastic visuals that work. It’s the sharp and resonant screenplay by Marielle Heller that keeps things moving without sacrificing character, theme or emotion.
The second reason why the film works so well is the star, Bel Powley. I have never heard of her before seeing the film, but now I would see her in anything. She’s a very magnetic screen-presence, lively and bold, but never over-the-top or unrelatable. She has great material to work with in the first place, which definitely does help, but she brings it to life in her own way and it adds so much to the movie’s identity and idiosyncrasies. Of course, the rest of the cast is strong as well. Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgård, Christopher Meloni, Madeleine Waters, Abby Wait, among many others, all do great work. Kristen Wiig, especially, does some of her best acting in this film.
It’s almost miraculous how fantastic The Diary of a Teenage Girl is. It’s a film that explores the complications of sex that faces Minnie once she takes part in it, but it never delves into any of the pitfalls of other films that deal in the same subject matter. It’s a film built on empathy for all its characters, allowing each of them to be their own complex individual without judgment. It’s a film that is brutally honest when it needs to be, but still has a heart that allows for all the emotional beats to resonate in a meaningful way. A lot of coming-of-age films are starting to get repetitive and a bit stale nowadays, but TDOATG feels like a breath of fresh air in comparison. It may be a 70s period piece, but its core themes are ones that are timeless and relevant no matter who and when someone sees it. It is easily one of the best films of 2015 and it gets you excited for anything Bel Powley and Marielle Heller is involved with in the future. 95.