‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’ shows that free love isn’t always free


The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

Directed by Marielle Heller

7.5/10  R

First-time writer/director Marielle Heller deserves praise for “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” a timeless and powerful examination of femininity, free love, and puberty set in 1970s San Francisco. Her screenplay, adapted from the Phoebe Gloeckner graphic novel of the same name, is worthy of Academy Award consideration. It’s faintly reminiscent of Diablo Cody’s masterpiece “Juno” screenplay, and not because the two films share similar themes of sexual discovery. Though that’s true, too.

“I had sex today,” 15-year-old student and budding cartoonist Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) declares into her tape recorder diary. She’s standing at the threshold of womanhood, no longer a child but not yet mature. You’ll soon discover that her first encounter was with her mom’s (Kristen Wiig) new hippie boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), which, as you can imagine, makes Minnie’s sexual awakening more complicated than that of most teenage girls. Once she realizes the beauty of love-making, Minnie begins to try out new and exciting things. But there’s always Monroe, throughout, trying to hide their affair from Minnie’s suspicious mother.

Bel Powley in The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” could have easily exploited Minnie’s sexuality, or mocked the delicate years of puberty in general. Thankfully, it remained tactfully aware of its touchy subject matter. The intimate and artistic cinematography doesn’t back away from Powley when Minnie confronts her insecurities, and the quirky and humorous script always lets Minnie say what’s on her mind. Could it be required sex-ed viewing, even? A film so empathetic and true to its fragile main character would be ideal. Maybe not one so…adult.

Powley steps up to the plate and delivers a home-run performance in her first starring role in a wide-release film. She captures the complex mixing pot of emotions flowing through Minnie at this pivotal moment in her young life. What’s more shocking is that Powley is playing a character eight years her junior. Regardless, she is nearly perfect. Kristen Wiig reconciles her lackluster performance in last year’s “Welcome to Me,” giving her greatest dramatic performance yet. But nobody treats their role more carefully than Skarsgard, whose character is our heroic Minnie’s foil. The small-time character actor always blends seamlessly into his role, and this time is no different. Or maybe he’s just always playing himself. Either way, as the free-loving Monroe, Skarsgard gives another fine turn.

“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is a triumphant girl power anthem with a strong female lead that should serve as a shining example of how to treat young, female characters for years to come. It’s an enjoyable work, but it’s also a brilliant showing of talent all around.

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