“I had sex today,” 15-year-old Minnie tells us in the first scene of “Diary of a Teenage Girl.”
“I think this makes me officially an adult. I guess.”
Striding down a street in 1970s San Francisco, Minnie is quietly proud of her recent transition to womanhood. She doesn’t even seem particularly concerned that the man who took her virginity is Monroe, the 35-year-old boyfriend of her bohemian mom.
In fact, Minnie targeted and seduced him. Monroe isn’t really a bad guy, but he’s kinda thick. He didn’t put up much of a fight.
“Diary…” features a home run performance from newcomer Bel Powley as Minnie while offering a non-hysterical depiction of sex between a grown man and a young girl. This is not an after school special warning of the dangers of pedophilia, and writer/director Marielle Heller (adapting Phoebe Gloeckner’s novel) doesn’t condemn her heroine to a life of misery for her youthful indiscretions.
By film’s end, in fact, we’re pretty sure that Minnie is going to not only survive, but thrive.
But we reach that point only after a good deal of uncomfortable squirming. “Diary” is brutally honest in portraying the conflicting emotions coursing through Minnie. At times she is intoxicated with her newfound sexuality and her power over the horndog Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). She nurses daughter-mother resentments and actually gloats a bit that she has pulled one over on her mom, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig).
She can’t wait to explore her new possibilities, leading to liaisons with a desirable high school boy (Austin Lyon) — who’s a bit cowed by Minnie’s sexual intensity — and even her galpal Kimmie (Madeleine Waters).
And yet Minnie is still a kid whose confidence is always colliding with her immaturity, her bad judgment and the vulnerability she works so hard to suppress. Not to mention her off-the-charts imagination, represented by the R. Crumb-ish cartoons she draws which regularly come to life in animated sequences executed by Sara Gunnarsdottir.
Here’s the thing: I admired much of “Diary of a Teenage Girl” without actually being wowed by it.
Certainly there is no criticizing the performance of Powley, a 23-year-old British actress whose round face and physique (stranded somewhere between pulchritude and baby fat) allow her to pass for someone much younger.
The issue, I think, lies with first-time filmmaker Heller, who slaps us about with unapologetic depictions of teen sex and nudity but ignores virtually every opportunity to soften the blow with humor. Yeah, the subject matter is serious — all the more reason to improve its palatability with amusing observations. This film needs a few chuckles — hell, a belly laugh wouldn’t hurt. (Skarsgard, for instance, seems ready to give us the amusing oaf residing behind Monroe’s hunky exterior, but never gets the chance).
As a tale of female empowerment and self acceptance, “Diary of a Teenage Girl” delivers the goods. But like its immature heroine it sometimes seems bent on offending everyone it meets.