Coming of age movies are so common that they have to do everything right in order to be memorable. While Marielle Heller’s directing and writing debut The Diary of a Teenage Girl isn’t a perfect film, the movie is still memorable, mixing humor and sadness effortlessly thanks to star Bel Powley.
Powley stars as Minnie, a 15-year-old in 1976 San Francisco, a city still grasping at the summer of love, at least in the world of her mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig). Minnie lives with her single mom and younger stepsister Gretel (Abigail Wait). Charlotte does try to give the girls a somewhat normal life, as she has a job at the library and a steady boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). But soon Minnie decides to go on a sexual awakening and starts sleeping with Monroe, a 35-year-old man who has no steady job and just dreams about one day running a vitamin empire.
The ‘diary’ part of The Diary of a Teenage Girl comes from Minnie’s tapes. She records all her thoughts and the ones she can’t express in words, she expresses in fantastical drawings. These pictures often come to life, meaning that the film brings together live action and skilled use of animation. Considering that the movie is based on a graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, it is impressive to see how Heller kept the film’s art roots. The animation isn’t intrusive or out of place at all. Every bit fits seamlessly into the film and it’s hard to see how it would work without them.
Diary would have also turned out a mundane film about a young teen figuring out who she is in the world were it not for Powley’s star-making performance. The British actress belongs in this role, which feels written specifically for her. She’s brilliantly funny and pulls off the emotional scenes well. Nothing feels forced from her, even though she is a bit older than the character. There’s still a sense of emotional naivete there that she brings out of Minnie.
Skarsgard is also quite funny as the only major male part in the film. The actor was in Savannah for a brief Q&A after the film and mentioned that they had little time to prepare before many of the key scenes in his character’s apartment. But you wouldn’t know it because Skarsgard and Powley share believable chemistry. If Minnie feels older than she really is, Monroe is much younger than he really is and Skarsgard can bring that out of the character.
Some of the other supporting parts in the film aren’t quite as strong as the two leads. Kristen Wiig pops in and out, but doesn’t really stick out as the mother. Christopher Meloni of all people plays Minnie’s former step-father and is clearly being pushed to be extra funny. Diary also goes in an incredibly dark direction heading towards the end, but perhaps that’s necessary to show Minnie what she can really learn at her age.
Yes, Diary is a graphic, dark and often gloomy look at the life of a teenage girl, but it has a heart that’s impossible to ignore. It’s often funny and should be seen by a younger audience. The film succeeds at getting to the heart of one of life’s biggest questions. “What’s the point of living if nobody loves you?” Minnie asks herself. She eventually learns that life isn’t so much about trying to find someone else to love you, but about figuring out how to love yourself. And the film also shows that there is always a member of your family to come home to that will love you no matter what.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl was released to theaters in August. It was screened at the Savannah Film Festival and presented by Savannah College of Art and Design.