What it's about:
Minnie is a teenage girl and amateur cartoonist living in 1970s San Francisco with her dysfunctional hippy mother and bratty kid sister but when she hooks up with her mother's deadbeat boyfriend.
What we thought:
Standing in stark contrast to the more mainstream coming-of-age films of the last few years, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a drug-fueled, highly sexual take on adolescence and dysfunctional families. It's nowhere near as enjoyable as The Way, Way Back; Me and Earl and the Dying Girl or Paper Towns but it has an audacity and a fearlessness to it that sets it apart.
And it has Bel Powley.
Make no mistake, Marielle Heller does a great job writing and directing an adaptation of Phoebe Gloekner's autobiographical graphic novel but its real ace in the hole is Powley who is uncomfortably believable as our fifteen-year-old anti-hero. She had a show-stealing performance in A Royal Night Out but her performance here, with a convincing American accent in tow, is a real eye-opener.
Between her highly dysfunctional home life, her self-loathing and her willingness to throw herself into a lifestyle of reckless sex and drugs to fill the emptiness in her life, Minnie is a fragile, emotionally raw and not always sympathetic protagonist and Powley portrays her with all the (sometimes literally) naked honesty that such a character requires.
For all her self-destructive antics, it's hard not to care deeply about this poor mixed up kid whose desperate need to "graduate" from childhood to adulthood causes her to do some monumentally stupid things along the way and that's all because of the hot-blooded, warm-hearted humanity that Powley injects into the character. The controversial, sometimes ugly nature of this film means that there's little chance of it happening but if there was any justice in the world Powley would be up for lead actress in every major awards ceremony in the upcoming awards season. She really is that good.
Bel Powley aside, however, the film is slightly more hit and miss, which stops me from every wholly embracing it the way I have so many of its contemporary coming-of-age movies.
On the negative side, its ending feels largely sudden and unsatisfying and Minnie's almost obsessive-compulsive attitude to sexuality and drugs doesn't always strike the most universal of notes. Most teenagers are pretty obsessed with sex, of course, but I'm pretty sure that for most of us – or at least the geekier and socially awkward of us - it had neither the self-destructive edge that it does here nor the frequency.
Most disappointing, though, is that while it's refreshing for a teenage-centric film to feature a girl having as much - if not more - sex as the guys usually do in all those raunchy teenage sex comedies, rather than being a sex-positive or empowering portrayal, Minnie's entire relationship with sex comes across as highly dysfunctional, perhaps even pathological. Though I'm sure both Ms. Heller and Ms. Gloekner would disagree strongly with me on this.
And, honestly, I'm kind of willing to give them the benefit of the doubt because for all its misjudged stumbles, unsatisfying ending and general feeling of ickiness that may well have the more prudish among us sharpening their pitchforks (though, in this case at least, I do sort of see where they're coming from too), but it's impossible to deny the emotional power of the piece or its defiant fearlessness. It's also surprisingly stylish for something so gritty (and occasionally grotty) and has an excellent supporting cast, including Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgard and Christopher Meloni. Plus, to counteract somewhat its tougher moments, it is quite funny at times and Heller injects some whimsical animations in the style of '70s underground comix to further lighten up the proceedings – even when the animations themselves are as uncomfortably weird and depraved as R. Crumb and co's '70s comics often were.
So yes, it's not perfect and it's not for the squeamish and I don't personally love it nearly as much as I do the more accessible and affable recent entries in its genre, but the Diary of a Teenage Girl is still a terrifically eccentric and emotionally honest coming-of-age film that is worth seeing, if for no other reason than to see one of the year's best performances by an incredible relative newcomer.