It is 1976, the year of harvest gold and avocado green wallpaper and cowl-neck sweaters as massive and ever-present as the TV coverage of the Patty Hearst abduction. Minnie Goetze, a San Francisco 15-year-old portrayed by the remarkable British actress Bel Powley, sits on a sofa next to the boyfriend of her mother (note-perfect Kristen Wiig), a party girl foremost and nominal, occasional mother secondarily.
We hear Minnie’s thoughts on the soundtrack. She wonders if Monroe, the boyfriend played with a shrewd mixture of geniality and calculation by Alexander Skarsgard, has lightly brushed her breast with his forearm by accident, or not. Minnie’s heart races. Her thoughts are driven by sex and the known unknowns, and losing her virginity, and what lies in store for her.
Monroe (predator? pedophile? a weasel, certainly) becomes Minnie’s lover early in the tumultuous, alarming and often alarmingly funny events of The Diary of a Teenage Girl. The subject matter will prevent some people from seeing it. Minnie’s libido sets the tone for the movie; both are charged with serious, unpredictable, vibrantly observant energy.
It’s also a formidable feature film debut from writer-director Marielle Heller, adapting Phoebe Gloeckner’s unflinching graphic novel/comix/diary hybrid published in 2002. In the book Gloeckner’s alter ego, Minnie, car-crashed her way through even more encounters than the film accommodates in its barreling 101 minutes. Heller’s adaptation sands down a few edges. But only a few. The way she writes and directs Minnie’s story, the sex and nudity and drugs are there, unapologetically, with a disarming lack of what actors call “indicating.”
“I want a body pressed up next to me, just to know that I’m really here,” Minnie confesses at one point. Her diary becomes a secret account of her time with Monroe. The secret cannot stay hidden, though, and once it’s out, the movie is far from over. So much in this girl’s life conspires to strand her emotionally. She and her sister, Gretel (splendidly deadpan Abby Wait), raise themselves while mom is snorting cocaine and dropping in for the occasional (and truly loving) spontaneous dance party with her girls. Heller refuses to moralize; the behavior, and its consequences, are there for us to process ourselves.
Every performance is good and true, but the movie truly needed a spectacular Minnie, which it got. Powley was 21 at the time of filming, but she’s a wholly convincing young teen, whose passions are multidirectional and consuming. Every feeling is heightened; each new round of intercourse with Monroe, or bull session with her best friend (Madeleine Waters), is either an expression of her desires or a respite from the confusion of her life. The film is harsh, but wonderful. It shouldn’t be funny, too, but somehow it is, and somehow it’s the right kind of funny.
Cast: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgard, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Meloni, Abigail Wait, Miranda Bailey.
Writer-director: Marielle Heller. Based on the novel by Phoebe Gloeckner.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 101 minutes. Strong sexual content including dialogue, graphic nudity, drug use, language and drinking, all involving teens. In Miami-Dade: Aventura, Sunset Place, South Beach; in Broward: Gateway, Paradise; in Palm Beach: Delray, Lake Worth, Shadowood, Living Room.