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Sundance 2015: ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’ is an honest, sweet and powerful coming-of-age tale

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The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Written and directed by Marielle Heller
USA, 2015

“I had sex today…..holy shit.”, says Minnie to her herself, or to the audience – hell, you get the impression that whoever is listening is good enough for her. Minnie is someone who has an awful lot to say about herself, but struggles to find someone to listen to her. Marielle Heller’s debut as a writer/director takes place in the 1970s and follows 15-year-old artist Minnie (Bel Powley), who enters an affair with her mother‘s boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård) and discovers her sexuality. It is an often funny and lighthearted story – adapted from the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner – but what it amounts to is a heartfelt and maybe even empowering film.

Bel Powley excels in what is sure to be a breakout role for her. There’s a natural goofiness in how she conducts herself. She embraces the more delusional aspects of Minnie as she narrates her life outloud – one scene finds her saying “fucking” repeatedly on a bus while a frightened old lady lives on. She is honest with the role above all, she wonders things to herself about her burgeoning sexuality that those around her have conditioned her to think are irregular. When she stares at her naked body in the mirror, finding all the insecurities that she can, it’s hard not to find yourself having done the same at some point. Powley is invested the whole way through, creating a performance that is sure to elevate her to immense notoriety.

Alexander Skarsgård adapts to a type of role previously unseen in him, toeing a tight line between humility and despicability. It’s easy to see the charm in Monroe that Minnie is attracted to, but Skarsgård still manages to show that just underneath is a crumbling man desperate for attention. He manages to make his character human and empathetic even when he becomes manipulative and uncaring. Kristen Wiig manages a similar effort bringing an honest warmth to the role of motherhood in Minnie’s mom Charlotte. There’s a scene where she tells Minnie that she should make herself look prettier to impress some boys, and to see Wiig play that kind of oblivious cruelty is refreshing. Christopher Meloni gets some comedic moments as Minnie’s frustrated step-father.

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Consistently underappreciated cinematographer Brandon Trost (or maybe not so much anymore, he was given an award from the Sundance jury for his work here) shoots the film with a certain aloofness that allows the surrealism of Minnie’s perspective to blend with reality. When the animations of Minnie’s mind intercede on the frame, Trost has given it a blanket to lie on. Heller directs the film right in tune with Minnie’s imaginative perception, while creating a space of intimacy for her characters.

What inevitably creeps through to the audience – and what makes the film so impactful – is the subtle ways it points out the inherent sexism that everyone perceives Minnie’s sexual awakening and whole attitude with. Whenever Minnie expresses her anger with Monroe he just talks down to her like a child. When she says she’s in love, people scoff at her. One boy she has sex with tells her she frightens him with how much she enjoys sex. People around school refer to her as a slut. When it clicks through to the audience, a mirror is held to them. You find yourself asking, “When was the last time I watched a movie this honest about a young woman’s coming of age?” Hopefully Marielle Heller continues to be able to tell stories like this so you don’t find yourself asking that.


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