First-time director Marielle Heller had something of a mission to make The Diary of a Teenage Girl, her debut film, starring newcomer Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård and Kristen Wiig. But after being given Phoebe Gloeckner’s book of the same name, a graphic novel that uses both comic-style illustration and passages of prose to tell the story of a teenage girl’s experiences with love and sex, she became determined to dramatise it.
When, after much persuasion, Heller was finally given permission to adapt the story she turned it into a stage play, which had a run in New York in 2010. But Heller wasn’t finished and despite never having directed before she has created an impressive debut feature.
Set in San Francisco in the mid-seventies the film joyfully recreates the era’s heady big-print soft-focus aesthetic against the backdrop of Patty Hearst’s trial and the drugs ‘n’ dropout lifestyle. Within this visual and cultural haze we meet Minnie Goetze (Powley) a fifteen-year-old girl and aspiring cartoonist who is experiencing her own summer of love.
And shock, horror world! She may be a girl but she loves sex; in fact she’s obsessed with it as only a teenager can be. The trouble is her first serious relationship with Monroe, a no-good lazy drunken sort of a dude, has its problems: namely that he’s twenty years her senior and already lives with her because he’s her mother Charlotte’s boyfriend.
Whilst Skarsgård and Wiig deliver satisfying performances, as the good-natured drunken no-hoper and tired-out party-loving mother respectively – both giving the lie to the façade of a free and easy lifestyle – it’s Powley on whom the story’s success depends. And she shoulders the responsibility with a breakout performance in which she convinces us that Minnie is essentially still a child, whilst making her intense sexual awakening completely convincing; Minnie becomes neither nymphette nor victim – she becomes herself.
The film had its UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and during the Q&A after the screening Powley spoke of how badly she wanted the part of Minnie, not least because teenage girls’ (if not women’s) sexuality is still virtually taboo.
The fact this is still the case in 2015 is seriously depressing and it’s also a shame that fifteen-year-olds won’t officially be allowed to watch it because despite an appeal from the film’s makers it has been slapped with an 18 certificate by the BBFC. It’s true there’s lots of drugs and sex, much of it involving an underage girl, but its honesty and focus on girls’ desires is refreshing.
The film is not interested in dishing out blame or resolution, with Heller juggling all the characters’ threads and using Minnie’s cartoons, animated, to illustrate her thoughts and emotions (a technique that was mostly effective).
Essentially there are no good or bad guys; misunderstanding, addiction and loneliness the cause of much of what unfolds. To deliver that delicate dramatic balance is an achievement in itself.
But perhaps this balancing act did lead to a little repression as the film felt like it wanted to be funnier, to let itself go (ironic considering the setting) with great characters like Minnie’s annoying sister Gretel, her best friend Kimmie and drunken deluded Monroe not exploited to full comic potential.
The only funny character is Minnie’s pedantic stepdad Pascal (Christopher Meloni), with his unerring habit of observing specimens, in this particular case, his family. But he only shows up once.
Towards the end, the script is also littered with vaguely trite lines about learning to love yourself and being a strong woman, messages we could have intuited with no need of assistance.
Perhaps this came from anxiety about making sure the film’s message was undeniably a positive one and in the end, it doesn't prevent the film from being a very enjoyable debut that has given us two interesting new talents in Heller and Powley.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is released in UK cinemas on August 7th