Review: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

 

5 stars

It's 1976 and 15-year-old Minnie Goetz (Bel Powley) keeps a diary on her cassette tape recorder. One of her dictated entries changes everything. “I've just had sex! Holy shit!”

In a minute I'm going to tell you something that will likely stir your emotions. First I remind you that times were different then. This was a period of exploration. There were lines, but they were fuzzier than they are now. Bear that in mind as I inform you that the guy Minnie just had sex with is her mother's thirtysomething boyfriend.

The age difference is eventually addressed, but this is not a movie about child molestation. It's a coming-of-age story – a terrific one – and Minnie is a very determined young person unwilling to wait for what she wants. That is what propels actor Marielle Heller's feature directing debut, which offers the most realistic depiction of the counterculture era I have ever seen. Phoebe Gloeckner wrote the book on which the film is based and Heller incorporates bits of underground comic-style animation to reflect the panels in the (partially) graphic novel.

Minnie's mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) is involved in the counterculture herself, particularly in the area of recreational drugs. Her boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard) is an affable, immature fellow (when he finally gets found out, he gripes that Minnie's manipulated him). The pair's hazy state of being is a factor in Minnie's behavior.

The cast includes little sister, Gretel (Abigail Wait), mostly absent step-dad, Pascal (Christopher Meloni), well-to-do fellow student, Ricky (Austin Lyon), best friend, Kimmie (Madeleine Waters), skateboarder Chuck (Quinn Nagle) and sort-of role model, Tabatha (Margarita Levieva).

Everybody is good or better, with standout work from Wiig and Skarsgard, but Bel Powley gives a star-making performance in the lead role. The movie rides on her ability to carry the anxieties of a regular teen while revealing herself to be exotic, daring, sexual, artistic, admirable, fierce and more, all depending on the moment. She is what kids like me wanted to be: the one that actually does it instead of just talking about it. And by “it” I mean everything.

One wrong move could have thrown the whole movie off, but Powley gets it right again and again. And so does the cast and crew – I thought Chris Meloni's character veered close to becoming cartoonish, but the film allows a scene where he drops his pretenses. Bottom line: “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is a beaut.

Opening: Friday, Keystone Art

Rated: R

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Ed Johnson-Ott has been NUVO's lead film critic for more than 20 years.

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