Debuting director Marielle Heller, working with the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, gets it right. The movie is by far my favorite at the festival–and I am not alone. The early buzz was right: the movie played like gangbusters. And sure enough the movie landed distribution from Sony Pictures Classics, which picked up rights in North America, Latin America, Australia, New Zealand, Eastern Europe excluding Russia, Asia, Scandinavia and Germany.
Here are six things to know about “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”:
1. The film gets away with its underage sexuality because it’s set in the free-wheeling ’70s. I can testify to the film’s authenticity; they get the period right. Although I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, not San Francisco, when I was in high school, I too lived in a heavily sexualized household with an irresponsible hard-partying single parent who could not be relied upon to keep a job, and would pass a joint at parties even when I was there. Older men hit on me all the time when I was a teenager. Many girls under 18 had sex with older men back then, and likely still do.
2. The sex is not icky. We know our sex-obsessed 15-year-old heroine Minnie Goetze (22-year-old Brit breakout Bel Powley) should not be losing her virginity and sleeping with the hunky goofball of a boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård) of her 30-something single mom (Kristin Wiig) and that there will be tears before bedtime. But we see how it happens: their flirting, fondling and coupling is fun and celebrates the joy of sex, without avoiding the pain that inevitably comes with it. Part of Minnie’s charm is that she doesn’t know what she’s doing–she’s learning as she goes along. Finally, the movie empowers Minnie. She’s no victim. She owns her budding young body and her sexuality. There’s a marvelous moment when her mother’s boyfriend glimpses the hickey on her neck that he did not put there.
By contrast Israeli writer-director Tali Shalom-Ezer presents a more contemporary and disturbing portrait of teen sexuality with World Competition entry “Princess,” which stars then-17-year-old actress Shira Haas shown having intimate sex-charged grapplings with her stay-at-home stepfather Michael while her nurse mother is at work. Without any of the comedic period razzle-dazzle of “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” this realistic intimate drama is tough to take –and will likely never be released in America. The talented Shalom-Ezer has moved on to a new English language project.
3. Because Heller adapted a graphic novel, the narrator’s voice rings true. Phoebe Gloeckner’s book is all over the movie. Goetze is recounting her sexual exploits on a cassette recorder, which serves as the movie’s narrative spine. It opens with her declaring, “I had sex today. Holy shit!” And she’s a cartoonist who draws a lot as well, so lively animation is another welcome diversion.
6. Women rock Sundance. Other Sundance hits will play well for the under-served female demo–and will encourage both indie and Hollywood financiers to fund more pictures aimed at women. The opening night movie from Liz Garbus, the timely documentary “What Happened Miss Simone?” (the Eccles audience applauded the Netflix logo) focused on a powerful, complicated musician who fought racism, sexism, and her abusive manager-husband, and found solace in the Civil Rights movement.
Garbus, one of many docmakers who has felt lifted by Sundance her whole career, described Simone as “a genius who changed the musical landscape but never got her due.” She and her team tracked down every piece of film they could find on Simone, allowing the jazz artist to narrate the story via interviews –plus talking heads who were close to her: musical director, ex-husband, daughter–and emotive songs. Pianist and crooner John Legend, who is Oscar-nominated for “Glory” from “Selma” (Ava DuVernay was in the house), performed three songs after the film, and Sundance hosted another night of musical tributes to Simone. Hopefully we will see a Simone resurgence.
Sundance regulars Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (”The Invisible War”) tackle campus rape in “The Hunting Ground,” a CNN-backed documentary that inspired a standing ovation and may yet land a theatrical release. And another Sundance vet, Amy Berg (“Deliver Us from Evil’), deals with a corrupt leader of the Church of Latter Day Saints with “Prophet’s Prey.”
Other Sundance women’s voices include Melissa Rauch, who co-wrote and stars in comedy “The Bronze,” as well as returning Sundance writer-director Leslye Headland (“Bachelorette”), who tackles ribald relationships again with “Sleeping With Other People” starring TV comedy stars Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie as two people who can’t stop cheating on their better halves. Australian Kim Farrant makes a strong debut with atmospheric “Strangerland,” which also stirs up female sensuality in a mother (Nicole Kidman) anxiously trying to find her sex-obsessed teen daughter who is lost in the outback.
Also at Sundance was a packed Women’s Brunch introed by Sundance Executive Director Keri Putnam and Women in Film’s Cathy Schulman (“Crash”), which boasted an interview with ex-PBS chief and news anchor Pat Mitchell with old friends and “9 to 5” costars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, who co-star in Marta Kaufman’s upcoming Netflix TV series “Grace and Frankie” (May 8). Tomlin also stars in popular Paul Weitz Sundance entry “Grandma.”
“It’s my women friends that keep starch in my spine,” said Fonda. “And take and give criticism –with love. We all know we have to shame the studios for being so gender-biased. We see the world differently. It’s patriotic to shout and raise our fists and go to women’s movies and prove that we’re commercial!”