The Diary of a Teenage Girl' explores sex with insight, not judgment

Bel Powley's vulnerable yet earthy performance captures teen concerns in this graphic novel adaptation

Tuesday August 18, 2015 04:00 am EDT

Many movies about young women's sexuality focus on a loss of innocence, but not The Diary of a Teenage Girl. At 15 years old Minnie (Bel Powley) loses her virginity, but never seems exactly innocent. At the film's outset, Minnie might be inexperienced and insecure, but she also shows confidence and impatience to get what she wants, even if her sexual discovery involves having an affair with her mom's boyfriend.

Written and directed by debut filmmaker Marielle Heller, The Diary of a Teenage Girl lives up to its enthusiastic reception at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Alternating between wry comedy and uncomfortable candor, The Diary of a Teenage Girl doesn't explore the innocence Minnie loses, but the knowledge and maturity she gradually gains.

With eyes big enough to rival Shelley Duvall or Amanda Seyfried, 23 year-old English actress Powley gives an earthy, vulnerable performance as Minnie. Recording diary entries on cassette tapes, she describes her life in 1976 San Francisco with her divorced single mom Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) and younger sister. Charlotte has a "non-possessive" relationship with her boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard) with a bristly mustache. His casual physicality and mild flirting around Minnie turn into trysts at his apartment.

Powley's acting and Heller's direction convey how Minnie reappraises the world around her through a sexual prism. Looking at the couples in the park, she notices for the first time how their chemistry subtly informs their body language. Having awakened her carnal appetite, Minnie struggles with loneliness and wonders at the difference between sex and love.

Minnie follows her libido into riskier territory, but the film's never judgmental or apologetic about her desires and attitudes. It could, however, serve as a cautionary tale about drug-fueled hedonism of San Francisco in the 1970s. Minnie and her friends drink at bars and smoke pot or snort coke at parties — at times with her mother present — yet no one bats an eye. The audience grows increasingly concerned for Minnie's well-being at her reckless behavior.

Impressively, Skarsgard keeps Monroe from coming across as an irredeemable creep. He doesn't prey on Minnie so much as prove incapable of behaving responsibly in her presence. It takes Minnie awhile to realize that such a tall, handsome guy could be so weak-willed in the face of feminine attention. The film spends less time exploring Charlotte's psychology, but Wiig finds humor in the character's double standards: she espouses feminist politics but proves much more conventional when suggesting how Minnie should comport herself.

In adapting Phoebe Gloeckner's autobiographical graphic novel, Heller uses animation to bring to life Minnie's creative imagination as an aspiring artist. Sketches move on a page or cartoon butterflies flutter around her lovelorn face. It's a familiar visual trope, but the designs feel authentic to the psychedelic comics of the era as well as Minnie's youthful concerns. Pixar's Inside Out isn't the summer's only excellent movie at charting a young woman's emotional landscape. (4 out of 5 stars)

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