Helena Solberg’s first dramatic feature, “Diary of a Provincial Girl,” a gentle and bland adaptation of Helena Morley’s beloved girlhood memoir, is worlds away from Solberg’s superb docus such as “Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business.” Solberg’s handling of Morley’s only tome (published at age 62 recalling her teen years in the remote mining town of Diamantina) is a respectful “Masterpiece Theater”-like treatment of a prized classic of 20th century Brazilian literature. Aud winner at the Rio fest and a hit with local crowds, pic will be shrugged off nearly everywhere else.
What verve and force the movie has is delivered by young thesp Ludmila Dayer, who takes great joy in exploring every ounce of Helena’s spunky rebelliousness. A less exultant and committed performance may have rendered the film truly deadly, surprising given Solberg’s fine record as a nervy documentarian.
Story is set in 1893, when Diamantina is long past its heyday as a center of the diamond-mining industry. Only a few dreamers are left panning for the shiny rocks, including Helena’s dad Alexandre (Dalton Vigh), causing no end of consternation for Helena’s patient mother Carolina (Daniela Escobar). While other girls in her school appear to be well-off, Helena is relatively poor, and painfully aware of it, sometimes acting out in fits of disobedience and anger.
Through a series of episodes that lack flow, Helena gradually comes into her own as a fledgling writer. The stories, inspired by Jules Verne, are clearly escapes from an increasingly stifling existence made worse by Helena’s Blighty-born Aunt Madge (Lolo Souza Pinto), who regularly prompts her to behave like a British lady.
The loving connection between Helena and her grandmother (Maria de Sa) is the film’s beating heart, and when the kindly matriarch dies, a way of life dies with her.
There’s a studied sense to the production’s re-creation of this turn-of-the-century colonial world that makes “Diary” feel more like an educational museum movie rather than a precocious girl’s adventure.
Solberg manages precise casting down to the smallest roles.