Cinematic Releases: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Andrew reviews the mildly pervasive, The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

"God damn it! My room is so messy!"
Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl remains one of the edgiest and most controversial coming of age stories of budding adolescent female sexuality ever written.  Hailed and abhorred in equal measure for its brutal honesty, heaviness and at times pornographic explicitness, the 1970s story of a teenage girl which dabbles in everything from pedophilic statutory rape, hard drugs, prostitution and rampant promiscuity would seem unsuitable for a big screen adaptation.  

With the writing-directing debut of character actress Marielle Heller, the long thought unfilmable semi-autobiographical comic is now a bold and daring cinematic reality.  Featuring newcomer Bel Powley as Diary’s troubled fifteen year old heroine Minnie Goetze, Kirsten Wiig as her alcoholic mother and Alexander Skarsgard as her mother’s sleazy boyfriend, it’s a tale which would otherwise be appalling were it not rich with brilliant stylistic flourishes scattered throughout.  The Diary of a Teenage Girl, while softer than its sharp edged source material, also manages through the frequent mixture of animation and live action to remind viewers we’re watching a comic book given flesh and blood.

Clearly modeled after Gloeckner, Bel Powley’s dark haired doe-eyed nymph is startlingly close to the source and it’s a role requiring Powley to bravely go the distance.  Not since Charlotte Gainsbourg’s collaboration with Lars Von Trier has an actress put herself so nakedly in the firing line, exposing her vulnerability in intimate detail.  A surprising dramatic performance from Kirsten Wiig proves there’s more to the comedienne than eliciting laughs.  Only Alexander Skarsgard’s casting is questionable as his likeability and heartthrob appeal seems in direct contrast with the novel’s overweight and crusty sexual predator.  As with Skarsgard’s character, Diary has filed down its sharp claws by jettisoning some of the novel’s more traumatic episodes including rape and heroin addiction but overall it gets as close to the source as it can without earning an NC-17 rating. 

"Gross! You don't know where
this couch has been!"
Visually and sonically, Diary is a stunner.  In almost every scene, animation sequences either appear in full or augment the live action footage, giving the film a colorful liveliness as well as an occasionally surrealistic quality.  It’s a welcome and wonderful addition which manages to give the slice of life story balance.  Only the soundtrack proves to be a misstep, intended to convey Minnie’s firebrand drive but at times feeling tonally antithetical to the material.  At first glance, Diary might seem like another coming of age teen sex comedy but upon closer inspection it’s startlingly gritty.  Fans of Gloeckner will absolutely be pleased with this adaptation although others may feel it tends to sugar coat the tale to make it more palatable to the general public.  As it stands, The Diary of a Teenage Girl feels spoken of the same breath as French provocateur Catherine Breillat’s equally uncompromising and wise Fat Girl, a boundary pusher determined to prove youthful female sexual awakening isn’t necessarily a soft bed of roses.


-Andrew Kotwicki

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