Starring Bel Powley, Domino the Cat, Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgård, and Christopher Meloni; Written by Phoebe Gloeckner (graphic novel) and Marielle Heller (screenplay); Directed by Marielle Heller; Rated R for strong sexual content including dialogue, graphic nudity, drug use, language, and drinking: all involving teens. 102 minutes.
“Confrontational” is a label we too often give the art–and the feelings and topics such art brings to light–that we would like to pretend does not exist. We too often treat this kind of confrontation as if it were something that we should avoid at all costs, like a sacred symbol in a jar of tinkle. By doing this, though, we miss out on opportunities to advance our thinking and realign our perception to better reflect reality. Writer-director Marielle Heller’s debut feature THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL is confrontational art in the the best sense.
British TV actress Bel Powley makes her Stateside debut in high style as Minnie Goetze, a 15-year-old girl in San Francisco in 1976 who is trying to balance her aspirations as an artist with her emerging sexuality. Minnie lives with her younger sister Gretel (Abby Wait) and her former hippie mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), and after a casual encounter with her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), an affair ensues. Naturally, the discreteness and control that Minnie and Monroe thought they had going in evaporates, and they must confront the reality of what they have chosen.
Heller spares no detail while chronicling Minnie’s odyssey, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable while we are watching it unfold. From the crimson “X” she paints on Monroe’s leg after her first time to the frank, no-boys-around discussions about sex she has with her friend Kimmie (Madeleine Walters) to the tryst she has with high school friend Ricky (Austin Lyon) in which he admits that Minnie’s unabashed pursuit of pleasure scares him, Heller and Powley let us know who Minnie is, through her desires, naivete, and ill-informed decisions.
While Heller’s gender doesn’t make her uniquely qualified to tell Minnie’s tale, the fact that she wrote and played Minnie in the 2010 stage version of Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel does. Both Heller and Powley are fearless in their presentation of Minnie, and it pays off in large ways. Powley’s slight stature (standing at 5’2”) helps us visualize Minnie as a child on the cusp, while her actual age (23 this year) gives them both license to present Minnie in ways that they could not with a minor in the role.
Just as “Saturday Night Live” veteran Kristen Wiig showed she is not afraid to take on the topic of mental illness in in films like “Welcome To Me,” “The Skeleton Twins,” and the misunderstood populist pic “Bridesmaids,” she takes on another gutsy role here. While Charlotte is not solely to blame for Minnie’s wanton ways (as if a teen’s desires are worthy of such blame) we can see how Charlotte’s own objectification of Minnie paired with her permissiveness swayed Minnie toward making the decisions she did. Wiig plays Charlotte with a sympathetic and effective matter-of-factness, without stealing Powley’s considerable thunder. Also likable–despite the fact that California law would brand his character a felon–is Skarsgård (“True Blood”) as Monroe. He manages to make Monroe’s ’70s porn ‘stache creepier than his lack of common sense and constant rationalization. This is no Solondz-style “Welcome To The Dollhouse” knockoff.
As Heller did on stage, she judiciously incorporates colorful visual cutaways here. Minnie’s animated proxy is a buxom giantess, rendered in the style of underground cartoonist R. Crumb (and a depiction of an acid trip is particularly inspired). Minnie’s artistic idol is Crumb’s paramour and wife Aline Kaminsky, whom she imagines seeing from time to time and takes advice from. It all feels very much like a first-person confessional like “Catcher in the Rye” by way of the schizophrenic magical realism of “Birdman” and the gender-bending fantasy of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” a confrontational pedigree that all involved manage to elevate, like Minnie, to beyond just a slapdash label that we would have otherwise written off due to our own predispositions.•••
Robert Newton is a veteran film critic, novelty recording artist, and Creative Director of the Cape Ann Cinema & Stage in historic Gloucester, Mass.