The movies are such a man’s world that lobbying for more “coming of age” stories from a female point of view has long been a given. But when “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is what you get, the lobbyist can be forgiven for having misgivings.
A brazen, twisted and discomfitting dramedy about growing up too fast in 1976 San Francicso, it’s centered on an insecure 15 year-old’s affair with her mother’s 34 year old boyfriend.
The sex is explicit and frequent and pretty much covers the spectrum. The drug use that accompanies it cringe-worthy. No man could have ever gotten away with adapting Phoebe Gloeckner’s novel in such frank terms.
We meet Minnie Goetze, fearlessly played by British actress Bel Powley, on a fateful day in her fifteenth year.
“I had sex today!” she announces in her narration. It’s an event worth preserving on her handy monaural cassette recorder, one she wanted commemorated with a Polaroid.
Hey, it was the ’70s, after all.
She’s sure her mate wasn’t lured in by her looks — cute enough, but shapeless in that lumpy pubescent way.
“I’m lucky he was attracted to my youthfulness.”
Indeed. Mr. First Time was Monroe, her mom’s boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard).
Minnie, who figures she’s “a woman now,” has to blab to her promiscuous best friend (Madeline Waters). She barely notices her growing allure with her age-appropriate but safe-sex-ignorant classmates.
And Mom, played as a blissed-out/wasted ’70s free spirit by Kristen Wiig, doesn’t catch on. As the affair progresses, Minnie starts to piece together the finishing touches of her personality even as she’s the last one to figure out that what she’s doing is wrong on every level.
Writer-director Marielle Heller makes the most of Minnie’s era and her passion — drawing underground comics in the raunchy-funny R. Crumb style. Her idol is Aline Kominsky, Crumb’s wife and fellow artist. When Minnie isn’t fantasizing butterflies, penises and her own body image, she walks and confides with animated Aline.
Heller, an actress (“MacGruber”) turned director, thus manages wonderful flourishes in a story as predictable as any superhero comic book movie. But her movie doesn’t just revel in sexuality and forbidden “love,” it wallows in it. Minnie, and Powley’s interpretation of her, become less interesting with each lurid new “experiment — from bisexuality to threesomes, pot to LSD.
Thankfully, the period and Minnie’s navigation of it aren’t glamorized. But they aren’t judged, either. And that neutrality makes Minnie’s coming of age seem abrupt and awarded rather than earned.
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content including dialogue, graphic nudity, drug use, language and drinking-all involving teens.
Cast: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgard, Kristen Wiig,
Credits: Written and directed by Marielle Heller, based on the Phoebe Gloeckner novel. A Sony Pictures Classics releaserelease.
Running time: 1:42