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Sleeper of the Week: ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl”

Sleeper of the Week: 'The Diary of a Teenage Girl"

Sleeper of the Week takes a film that only few critics have seen and shines some light on it.

“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”
Dir: Marielle Heller
Criticwire Average: A-

Based on a graphic novel of the same name, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” follows 15-year-old aspiring cartoonist Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) as she discovers her own burgeoning sexuality. She begins having an affair with her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard) while also experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Minnie is forced to confront her own maturity (or lack thereof) when some of her decisions lead to negative consequences. Critics are raving about this film, especially praising Bel Powley’s natural performance and the film’s shambling, hazy vibe. However, what makes “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” borderline revolutionary is how it approaches female sexuality. It neither portrays Minnie as damaged for her sexually adventurous decisions, nor does it portray sex as some kind of dangerous activity. Instead, it takes an empathetic, humane approach to Minnie’s journey, and it treats her sexual appetite as a genuine emotion and not a punchline.

More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:

Jason Bailey, Flavorwire

“I like sex,” confesses Minnie (Bel Powley), in one of the many voiceovers that pepper Marielle Heller’s “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.” “I really like getting fucked. Does everyone think about sex as much as I do?” If you watch movies about teenagers, you wouldn’t think so — or, more accurately, you wouldn’t think that young women do. Movies about teenage boys almost always (accurately) portray them as cripplingly obsessed with fornication, while the women they pursue are reluctant, prudish, finally acquiescing, it seems, purely out of obligation and/or as affirmation of “true love.” Of course, occasionally those stories also include a Damaged Bad Girl™, who will, in fact, go all the way. That character is at the center of “Diary” — but, for once, she’s not defined by her damage, nor her sexuality. That quality is what makes the picture revolutionary; the insight and wit of of the writing and direction and the bracing humanity of the playing are what make it great. Read more.

Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

Minnie Goetze, the 15-year-old heroine of “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” is a would-be cartoonist who, despite her first name, is closer in lusty spirit and scratchy pen to Robert Crumb than to Walt Disney. When, partway through this gutsy, exhilarating movie, she draws her first cartoon, it’s of a bodacious female colossus striding across San Francisco. As this inky giant keeps on trucking, she evokes the 50-foot-woman of cult film fame, if one that has received a Crumb makeover, with thighs as mighty as giant sequoias and a bottom that rolls like a ship in a storm. The terrific actress Bel Powley was in her early 20s when “Diary” was shot, but looks more like a teenager than most of the generically buffed and prettified adolescents who populate American screens. She has the wide-open look children have before life gets in the way. But she’s on the short side and is dwarfed by Kristen Wiig (great), who plays Charlotte, Minnie’s boozy, inattentive mother. Ms. Powley looks almost doll-like, Lilliputian, when staring up at Alexander Skarsgard (a perfect worm), who plays Monroe, a mustachioed loafer with pitiful self-improvement plans. He’s Charlotte’s boyfriend when the movie opens, and he’s also sleeping with the very willing, all-too-eager Minnie, although calling him her lover doesn’t seem quite right — but neither does predator. What you call Monroe, other than an expletive, depends on what you call a man having sex with a 15-year-old girl. “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” takes place in 1976, when the age of consent in California was 18 (it still is), but it unfolds in an anything-goes milieu in which Monroe might be branded more of an opportunist than a creep. Drinks and pot smoke flow through its rooms, in between snorts of cocaine. Charlotte works as a librarian and parties like, well, someone with no children, having apparently traded in Dr. Spock for Dr. Feelgood. In her hedonism, if mostly in her egotism (it’s all about her), Charlotte comes off like a case study for “The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations,” Christopher Lasch’s 1979 era-defining classic. Read more.

Bilge Ebiri, Vulture

There’s little that’s actually new in “Diary of a Teenage Girl.” We’ve seen this “way-too-young girl with an older man” scenario many times before, in Lone Scherfig’s “An Education,” Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank,” and countless other films. Minnie is an aspiring cartoonist, and the film occasionally presents her thoughts as little surreal, animated reveries; even these hark back to similarly offbeat films like “What If” and “Look Both Ways.” What is new is the earthiness that Heller and her young lead bring to Minnie’s experimentations with sex and drugs. She enjoys sex. She enjoys the power it gives her. And as Minnie finds herself going further and further into this world of pleasure and abandon, the film largely steers clear of scolding or moralizing. Even as we recognize that her adventures probably won’t end well, we can understand their pull, and even their necessity. Let this girl have her moment, the film seems to say, and make her mistakes. There’s plenty of time left to grow up. Read more.

Jordan Hoffman, New York Daily News

First-time director Marielle Heller has a knack for drawing difficult and sometimes contradictory feelings from her cast. Young Powley is front and center, but Kristin Wiig is superb as the libertine mother given to long nights of boozing and carousing. Same goes for Alexander Skarsgard, the shared beau who, in a lesser film, would be portrayed as merely a lecher taking advantage of a confused young girl. The lovemaking scenes go for realism yet are never sleazy. The story leaves room for side characters like Minnie’s younger sister (Abby Wait) and former stepfather (Christopher Meloni) to do more than just provide some comic relief. Everyone brings some unexpected depth. Read more.

Richard Brody, The New Yorker

The great movie implicit in “Diary of a Teenage Girl” is the one in which Minnie and Kimmie would talk about what they had done, in which Minnie would speak in detail into the microphone of her recorder about what she felt. She is, she tells Kimmie in the bar, curious about what it would be like to be a prostitute; the viewer still has no idea what it is like to be Minnie. The movie is filled with Minnie’s voice-over diary entries but it nonetheless offers almost nothing of her inner life. Whatever she may think about the sensations of sex, about Monroe’s body, about her own body, about the particulars of pleasure, about her fantasies about kinds of bodies, senses of preferences, attractions, aromas, ways of moving, tones of voice, textures of skin — there’s none of it in the movie. There are no sexual mysteries or complexities, no admixture of pain or fear or even unfulfillment, arising from Minnie’s spoken diary or her art work. In “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” sex is de-physicalized and, in the process, de-emotionalized. It’s precisely in the blanking-out of Minnie’s inner life — her reduction to a childlike state of mind, the generic attitudinizing that replaces the mucky specifics of sex and particulars of bodies, the elision of all risk (whether physical ones including pregnancy, or emotional ones, utterly unaddressed) — that Heller flattens Minnie from a character to a decal, reduces sex from a great mystery to a check-off box. Heller’s visual realization of the film, which is inattentive to bodies and gazes, and which sticks to a puppet-like enactment of the drama, matches her gappy, generalized script. The director’s decision to deploy voice-overs, drawings, effects, and animation is admirable, and there are several moments where their humor (as in Minnie’s self-imagination as a giant) or tenderness (a wondrous flutter of imagined rose petals in a moment of anguish that veers toward relief) hints at what could have been throughout. Read more.

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