Just because you’re ready to do grown-up things doesn’t mean you’re mature enough to handle the consequences. That’s the dilemma Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) finds herself in when she falls for and sleeps with her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). But he’s only a part of her story. Minnie, like most kids her age, struggles with acceptance and finding her identity. Her open need for love and belonging is boldly laid bare in The Diary of a Teenage Girl.
It’s only with great sensitivity on Powley’s part that the audience empathizes with the self-absorbed whims of a 15-year-old. Minnie jumps at the chance to be loved, all the more so since her mom and stepfather withheld affection. She’s also just coming into her own and discovering she likes sex. The film makes no harsh judgments for her actions. Instead, it lets Minnie find her sense of worth on her own, sans a life-altering event like a pregnancy. Likewise, The Diary of a Teenage Girl allows viewers to form their own opinions about Minnie’s character.
Minnie’s immaturity isn’t rooted in any sort of malicious character flaw, but a general lack of experience. She’s convinced Monroe loves her more than her mother. We get a sense of her childlike naiveté mix and mingle with sexual fantasies through animated sequences of Minnie’s wacky inner world. She’s no saintly protagonist, but rather a refreshingly complex one who’s full of flaws, desires, needs and dreams.
Likewise, her mother Charlotte will win no parenting awards this or any year. Expertly played by Wiig, she walks a fine line between cartoonish villain and a vessel for the audience’s sympathy. The single mother of two is in search of her own identity, leaving little capacity to support her daughters. Charlotte flounders much like Minnie, but with a neglectful air of rejected responsibilities. She too has been through her share of romantic mishaps, but none as large as the one Monroe carries on behind her back.
Which brings us to the slimy boyfriend, who exploits Minnie’s insecurities and manipulates Charlotte. Monroe is a foul character, yet he’s played not for laughs or with exaggerated mustache-twirling, but as a stealthy creeper who seems to have a damaged past of his own. Skarsgård underplays his part so convincingly it’s easy to forget Monroe is a predator. His is perhaps the most ruinous role of the bunch, but director Marielle Heller gives Minnie agency as to how he is spoken about in the movie. In a fittingly in-and-out-of-love way, he’s photographed differently when Minnie’s moods swing from infatuation to damnation.
Secondary characters like Minnie’s friend Kimmie (Madeleine Waters) and stepfather Pascal (Christopher Meloni) are welcome buffers amid the conflict. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is not without its sick dick jokes and Freudian jabs. Only one character, that of momentary love interest Tabatha (Margarita Levieva), feels a tad forced, her subplot more of a drag than anything necessary.
First-time director Heller, who adapted the screenplay from Phoebe Gloeckner’s novel, traps her middle-class white heroine in the center of that ’70s cultural hub. The shag carpeting on the floor, ever present bell-bottoms and the TV droning about the Patty Hearst case are used to show she’s a product of her time. There are a number of scenes in which characters eroticize African-American men, making it almost too obvious that the subject of mixed-race relationships was still taboo. The film is also set a mere decade after the birth of the feminist movement, meaning both mother and daughter are navigating uncharted waters of liberation. They’re flailing at different stages of life.
Although Minnie’s escapades (and abuse—let’s not forget Monroe is an adult) are not something everyone can relate to, Heller’s careful direction makes the character accessible to love or loathe. Her desperate attempt at finding love in an increasingly uncaring world will resonate at any age. Powley so perfectly captures awkward teen angst and isolation, Minnie soars above the trope of a conventional tortured teen. For an industry that can barely manage to put women in leading roles, The Diary of a Teenage Girl casts a sexually brash 15-year-old as antihero, and succeeds.
Director: Marielle Heller
Writer: Marielle Heller, based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s novel
Starring: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Meloni
Release Date: August 7, 2015
Monica Castillo is a freelance film critic and writer based in Brooklyn. You can usually find her outside of a movie theater excitedly talking about the film she just saw or on Twitter.