“I had sex today. Holy shit!” So is the sentence that begins “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” Marielle Heller’s film adaptation of Phoebe Gloekner’s eponymous graphic novel. We’re introduced to our 15-year-old heroine Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) from the film’s first shot, as the camera closes in her overly contented face, dreamy eyes, hipster-esque t-shirt (Micky Rat), and then tracks her in some really soothing slow-mo as she walks through a park lined with a group of 70s-era free-lovers (yes, there is a topless chick). Less than fifteen minutes later, however, when we find out how Minnie actually lost her virginity, it comes as quite a shock, yet it doesn’t diminish the adolescent sweetness that carries this scene.
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is a film that tries to look at sexuality from the perspective of a character who is both inexperienced and adventurous, and what better period to explore this than 1976? It was a time when the counter-culture revolution of the 1960s had been considered a failure, yet we kept the drugs and sex. Minnie is a high school student living in San Francisco with her mother Charlotte (Kristin Wiig), and her boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). Minnie aspires to become an artist for underground comic books, and her transgressions this year may prove to be her honest launch into creativity.
Marking her directorial debut for a feature film, Marielle Heller does an exemplary job with making “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” work. It’s a film with material that tackles topics that aren’t often seen in mainstream American films, and it’s not too far a stretch to imagine that a few years ago this movie wouldn’t have been picked up for distribution. Due to the character’s young age, Minnie’s sex scenes are certainly uncomfortable (Even if Bel Powley is of legal age), but there’s no denying that this film handles sex in a more realistic sense than other films. You won’t see our protagonist wrapped in coitus while wearing clothes (as in this summer’s other bawdy female-forward sex comedy, “Trainwreck”), and you can expect plenty of bare flesh, frank language, and enough variety in positions to give Howard Stern’s dirty mind the runs.
Despite all this, the film handles its subject matter tastefully, and it’s clear that Heller not only wants to capture Minnie’s budding libido, but also her gestation as an artist as well. The film places animated illustrations into the shots, usually when Minnie is coming across a revelation of sorts. While at times this tactic can feel a bit underwhelming (similar use was seen in “American Splendor,” and to arguably better effect), it’s often quite beautiful and poignant to the storyline. One particularly telling scene finds Minnie and Monroe taking LSD together, and their reaction to it is made clear, not just through lush animation, but also through some of the most tricky cinematography you’ll see all year.
“Diary of a Teenage Girl” is certainly one of the best directorial debuts of 2015, but Heller isn’t the only contributor to this film who is making a big breakthrough. The 22-year-old British actress Bel Powley shines as Minnie, capturing her awkward look, visible charm, and uncertainty, often simultaneously. She’s rounded out by a fantastic supporting cast too, with Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård convincingly playing a sleazy American who lacks most of the “leading man” traits that he’s been known for. Perhaps even more impressive too is Kristin Wiig, who continues to show how versatile an actress she is with this very huge year for her (It’s hard to believe that this, “Welcome to Me,” “The Spoils Before Dying,” and “Wet Hot American Summer: The First Day of Camp” have all come out in the last four months). As harrowing as Minnie’s journey of self-discovery is, the best moments of drama come from when she is confronting her mother.