The Diary of a Teenage Girl: Under the Skin, by David Bax
Happily, the absolute worst thing about Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl is its boring title. That unimaginative string of words in no way represents the strength of Heller’s singular vision and how strongly and intimately she communicates it. Easily one of the best films of the year so far, Diary is a coming of age story that may be as transformative for the viewer as it is for the protagonist.
Bel Powley stars as Minnie, a fifteen year old living in San Francisco in 1976 with her mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig). When she acts on her attraction to Charlotte’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), the man – twenty years Minnie’s senior – reciprocates. So begins not just an unhealthy affair but a troubling and increasingly risky version of sexual awakening. Of course, Minnie is not defined solely by her sexual decisions – none of us is – and Heller also details her growing interest in the underground comics scene of the time, fancifully adding bits of animation to the frame when Minnie’s mind wanders.
Yet, for a movie that includes a scene in which the protagonist sprouts cartoon wings and floats up to the ceiling, the dominant visual aesthetic is strictly ground level. Heller and cinematographer Brandon Trost prudently restrict the color palette to the mundane. The result is sensual in its very everydayness, with light the quality of unremarkable afternoon sun coming through the living room window or of 60-watt bulbs under tacky lampshades. The film thus becomes relatable to the point of being tactile, an essential quality for a story so concerned with matters of the flesh.
Powley gives a performance palpable enough to match the material. She physicalizes a classically teenage paradoxical blend of headstrong confidence and discomfort in her own skin. From one scene to the next, she can fearlessly strut in tight clothes and then mercilessly fixate on her perceived imperfections in the mirror. Minnie holds these contradictions in her head the way any person does and Powley translates them without telegraphing any hints as to the choices she’s making beneath the character.
Heller’s wiliest stroke is to make this potentially harrowing story still feel like fun, at least most of the time before things get scary. She leaves it to us, her adult audience, to understand on our own that Minnie is making dangerous choices but also persuades us to view those choices from the point of view of a teenage girl. We can and perhaps should captiously cluck our tongues at Minnie’s behavior and especially at the absence of parenting that allows for it. Yet, thanks to Heller’s and Powley’s efforts, we can also understand why, from Minnie’s vantage point, her sybaritic adventures are empowering, however temporarily.
Were Heller to have taken a more moralistic, afterschool special-style approach to this material, its point would have been made and its welcome worn out early on. But this is not some cautionary tragedy. Nor is it, despite its potently carnal content, a movie that’s about sex. When Minnie relates the feeling we’ve clinically categorized and diminished as ‘teen angst’ by describing “little weights hanging from my heart that tug every time I move,” the result is overwhelmingly evocative. The Diary of a Teenage Girl does one of the things that movies, and art in general, do only when they’re at their best. It makes us see the world entirely from another person’s point of view.