The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Diary of a Teenage Girl 2.jpg
UK Release Date 7th August 2015
Director Marielle Heller
Starring Bel Powley's Eyes
Runtime 102 Minutes
Certificate 18
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 11th August 2015

Movie certification can be a tricky thing at the best of times, this is always most noticeable when it comes to, whisper it, sex. Yikes! We’ve come on a long way since the glory days of James Ferman, bless him, possibly the most conflicted man to ever censor a movie but it’s still puzzling that whilst nobody questions the legality of sixteen year olds actually having sex, we seem destined to never let them watch it at the cinema. Which leads to the odd situation here where whilst the actor could go see her character having sex at the cinema, her character would not have been allowed in. Odd.

All of this of course recedes into the background once we get to meet Bel Powley’s fifteen year old protagonist in Marielle Heller’s wonderful The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s illustrated book of the same name, we follow the travails of Minnie - a slightly dorky but eminently capable teenager who embarks on an ill-advised relationship with her mother’s boyfriend, some twenty years her senior…  

So far so straightforward, either the guy’s is a horrific predator, the mother a total loser or the teenager a complete slut or all of the above and a family pet is in grave danger, yeah? Not by a long shot. Heller (directing and on screenplay duties) is far too smart a cookie for this movie to be anything simple or obvious. And she has also assembled far too good a cast for that kind of movie. 

This isn’t a movie where a great deal really happens on the surface. Minnie attends school, daydreams in wonderfully animated ways, completely misses the advances of a surfer dude peer, engages in a full on affair, draws copious exceptionally graphic cartoons and commits all this to good old fashioned tape for posterity. That’s your lot really, but that’s about all you need when the script is this good and the players so endlessly fascinating.

Powley is nothing short of a revelation as Minnie. Until now, mostly a veteran of a whole bunch of TV shows in the UK that I’ve never heard of, this movie seems destined to send her flying across the Atlantic to star in just about anything Hollywood cares to put her way. Decked out with an atrocious fringe and a wardrobe full of clothing that must surely have been geeky even in the seventies, her Minnie exudes a kind of cool awkwardness that it’s very hard not to feel envious of. And this is coming from the male half of Broken Shark. That’s not to say Minnie is invincible, either at school or in normal life - she is as vulnerable as a fifteen year old would be - she just seems to recover much quicker than the rest of us. And then there are those eyes. I’m pretty much convinced that you could watch the entire of this movie with every other part of Powley redacted, including her speech and you would still cop a huge lump of the emotional impact in those eyes. They should create a BAFTA category for eye acting.

Powley is in great company with her two main co-stars. Alexander Skarsgård is ideal as Minnie’s lover and her mother’s boyfriend Monroe. Heller and Skarsgård have perfectly nailed the line between outright predator and grown-up who should know better but can’t quite bring himself to do the right thing. Skarsgård never comes across as outwardly threatening or overtly creepy, Heller doesn’t want you to pick sides here. Initially innocent, warm and never cruel, it’s easy to forget that this man-child should be the one standing up and admitting the wrongdoing much earlier than is the case (when it does start to dawn on him, the script throws up a hilarious piece of understatement that almost lets him get away with it).

As Minnie mother Charlotte, Kirsten Wiig likewise manages to capture a real person without slavishly following the usual movie cliches. Charlotte drinks, gets fired from her job and does far too much coke to be held up as a model of parenting but at the same time, Heller’s movie manages to present this as a real piece of life. This stuff all happens but none of it feels like it’s heading up to a moralistic point. It’s just life.

Which is where the true beauty of this movie lies. The Diary of a Teenage Girl never for a moment attempts to make you pick a side or really to even judge the characters and it never feels like it is heading to a big revelation or event (and for that it put me in mind of Linklater’s magnificent Boyhood). This is just a slice of Minnie’s life as she travels through it. There are ups and downs and there are dramas and tears but by the end of the movie, Minnie will just continue as she has always, a little bit older but not a great deal wiser. Monroe isn’t vilified or chased by a mob, Charlotte isn’t carted off in a police wagon or judged in the media and Minnie doesn’t end up in social care, because that shit just doesn’t happen to people in normal life. Nobody is going to stand leaning on a railing next to a lake with a beer in a red cup and realise the secret to growing up over a miserablist soundtrack here. And thank fuck for that.

In Short:

Heller has put together a pitch perfect cast to star in her brilliantly scripted, honest piece of seventies teenage life. Her movie has just the right amount of drama, just the right amount of wit, frankly just about the right amount of everything. I commented a while back in relation to Fincher’s Gone Girl, how relieved I was at a return to grown-up movie making, this excellent film absolutely nails that. I haven’t the first idea why the BBFC saw fit to grant this an 18 certificate but I can only assume it was a nod of approval for a movie that doesn’t go for cheap shots, easy cop-outs or stereotyped characters we’ve seen over and over again. Minnie is an awesome creation and Powley brings her to life in a spectacular, understated way. Diary of a Twenty Something Girl anyone?

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