Sundance 2015: Bel Powley Amazes in 'The Diary of a Teenage Girl'
by Ethan Anderton
January 26, 2015
In the world of indie films, the coming-of-age storyline is a popular one. But because we're all different, maturing in ways that aren't identical, that makes for a variety of great stories with similar themes. In this case, director Marielle Heller launches her career with The Diary of a Teenage Girl, based on the graphic novel of the same name by Phoebe Gloeckner, which follows 15-year old Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) growing up in the heart of San Francisco in the drug friendly 1970s, quickly and aggressively exploring her sexuality. However, making things complicated is the fact that this happens with Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), the boyfriend of her mother (Kristen Wiig). The result is a stupendous film.
Bel Powley oozes with charisma and charm as this peculiar, wide-eyed girl who opens the movie by telling us she just had sex ("Holy shit."). It's a little awkward when we learn that this underage teenage girl just had sex with an adult man who just happens to be her mother's boyfriend, but the film doesn't walk on eggshells when it comes to sexuality. It's blunt, honest and very explicit, with lots of nudity to go around. For me, the film never feels crude, mostly because Powley is so charming and wonderful that we're always on Minnie's side, even when she begins to make some very questionable decisions.
Alexander Skarsgard does a fine job of not coming off like a complete creep, even though he's having sex with the 15-year old daughter of his girlfriend. It's fascinating that such an inappropriate relationship feels so strange at first, but we get so caught up in Minnie's thoughts and views on the relationship and sex in general that their ages don't really matter. Maybe it's because Minnie is making firm decisions of sexuality on her own, and we know she has to make these mistakes to learn lessons, but we're along for the ride. And while I worried for Minnie's heart and mind, I never really disapproved or judged her as a character. The film also doesn't pass judgment, letting Minnie discover herself without limitations, for better or worse.
In addition, the 70s setting of the film just makes everything so much more relaxed and acceptable. There's casual cocaine use, underage drinking (and in actual bars t00), plenty of weed, and again, tons of sex. Adding some odd 70s flare is the presence of dozens of intricate and mesmerizing animated illustrations, all from the mind of Minnie, an aspiring cartoonist of sorts. But these are deformed but beautiful and surreal illustrations, all adding to Minnie's unique personality, which is certainly a little odd, but always alluring and funny. Not enough can be said for how amazing Bel Powley is in this film.
Kristen Wiig is back at Sundance with another impressive dramatic performance too. Wiig isn't meant to be funny in this movie, and she doesn't really get to do much in the vein of comedy, so this is even more of a change of pace than last year's Skeleton Twins. She's a strong presence in the film as Minnie's mother, who is a little reckless and irresponsible with her drinking and drug habits (everyone seemed to be in the 70s), though is still trying her best. She really gets to display her dramatic chops when the shit hits the fan and sexual secrets are exposed, and Wiig continues to prove that she's way more than just a comedic actress.
With her directorial debut, Marielle Heller can confidently stand alongside the powerful female voices behind the camera today. She paints a wonderful portrait of a teenager girl exploring her body, trying to understand love, and just figuring out the world around her. It's refreshing to get such an authentic perspective on raging hormones and growing up from a female character like this. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is sincere, funny, passionate and easily one of the best female-centric coming-of-age dramas, and serves as a breakthrough for Heller as a filmmaker and Powley as a bright future star.