Heller’s film is adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s semi-autobiographical graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures. First published in 2002, Gloeckner’s book centres on Minnie Goetze, a 15-year-old girl living in San Francisco in 1976. Minnie has begun to feel the swell of her sexual desires and sets her sights on losing her virginity. She deems Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), the waster boyfriend of her free spirited mother (Kristen Wiig), as the ideal sexual partner. So begins Minnie’s burgeoning physical relationship with her mother’s boyfriend.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is the kind of radical filmmaking that doesn’t make it to our screens all that often. It is a deeply feminist film, but also an even-handed one. It makes the ‘revolutionary’ claim that pubescent girls experience exactly the same urges as (cinematically favoured) pubescent boys. Films such as Bridesmaids, and its ilk, have gone a long way to prove that comedies can focus on women whilst also commenting upon unisexual experience, and The Diary of a Teenage Girl takes a similar approach to the classic coming of age sex comedy. In the process, creating what seems to have the makings of a deeply empowering film for both teenage girls and teenage boys.
Much of this can be attributed to the miraculous work of Bel Powley in the role of Minnie. She has a wide-eyed authenticity that drops the required eight years (she’s 23) flawlessly. Her physical accuracy is matched by her pitch-perfect line delivery. Heller writes Minnie snippets of disarmingly honest diaristic voice-over narration and Powley delivers them brilliantly. Together they establish a really strong narrative voice to lead us through this journey, and it’s one of the primary reasons their film rings so true. Powley also handles the teenage emotional unpredictability with ease. Minnie swings from melancholia to joy to despair at the drop of a hat and Powley’s transformations are effortless.
The wider cast also do great work with Heller’s incisive dialogue. Skarsgård is particularly great and he wears his fluffy 70s tache and sideburns with aplomb. It’s a role that could so easily have just been played as an exploitative jerk, but Skarsgård portrays Monroe as a desperate loser who is conflicted by his actions but just can’t stop himself from diving back in. Monroe’s weakness comes to mean a great deal as the third act roles around and his eventual emotional disparity with Minnie is an important dramatic turning point.
Yet, while Monroe’s position as the exploited, hopeless ‘man’ could be seen as depressing, Skarsgård plays him with such ease and his effortless screen presence is not to be underestimated. I can’t say I’m that well acquainted with Skarsgård’s work, but this certainly establishes him as a supreme talent.
Heller’s visuals are also impressive. She uses attractive smudged tones to match the period setting which, in turns, makes the animated flights of fancy all the more expressive. Minnie is a cartoonist and her sketches accompany her adventure, as they do our viewing experience. Colourful doodles are superimposed onto the frame to reflect moments of intense emotion. But, sometimes Heller forgoes the live action entirely and switches to a fully animated realm. These sequences are drawn and animated by Sara Gunnarsdóttir, and she accurately appropriates Gloeckner’s style. Like Gloeckner, Gunnarsdóttir’s drawings are designed to reflect emotions and expression, rather than playing to any traditional visions of beauty. As a result, Gunnarsdóttir’s animation is crude – even vulgar, at times – but it is also has the power to dazzle.
So does the soundtrack: as with the best coming of age tales, music is very important to The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Heller collects an eclectic mixtape of 60s and 70s oddities, alongside a pair of original folky compositions from Nate Heller, and it works a treat.
Overall, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s a beautifully observed coming of age tale, with a subversive ideological kick that will ensure it lingers long in the memory. Minnie, as portrayed by Bel Powley, looks set to be an icon of teenage bohemia and burgeoning feminism for years to come. The 1970s have never felt so relevant.
Review by Benedict Seal