Translating tricky source material to the screen with flying colors, actress Marielle Heller’s feature directing debut, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” manages to plunge into the too-precocious sex life of a 15-year-old girl without turning exploitative or distasteful. This adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s heavily autobiographical novel is ideally cast and skillfully handled, making for a salable item likely to stir some attention-getting controversy and win favorable reviews in territories where the subject matter (which is depicted not graphically, but with a fair amount of nudity) doesn’t create daunting censorship problems.
“I’ve just had sex! Holy s—!” Minnie Goetz (Bel Powley) exults to us (or rather to her cassette-tape audio diary) for starters, before rewinding to chronicle the loss of her virginity to Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), the two-decades-older boyfriend of her mom, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig). Minnie was somewhat the instigator, though Monroe scarcely voiced an objection. If this blase attitude seems rather appalling from the outside, it makes a sort of sense in the context of Chez Goetz. Minnie and her younger sister, Gretel (Abigail Wait), get more standard parental input long distance from their stepdad, Pascal (Christopher Meloni), whom their mother divorced, than they do from Mom or her myriad boyfriends, of which Monroe is just the “main one.” (Their biological father or fathers are long gone and rarely mentioned.)
Thus, Minnie seems even more confused than most teenagers about separating sex and love, craving the elusive latter while enthusiastically chasing the former — not just in Monroe’s bed, but also with rich-kid fellow student Ricky (Austin Lyon). Meanwhile, she apes her mother’s undiscriminating partying habits with best friend Kimmie (Madeleine Waters), is casually pursued by skateboarding classmate Chuck (Quinn Nagle), and grows attracted to the wild-side allure of streetwise young lesbian Tabatha (Margarita Levieva).
Juggling all these (ahem) balls while keeping the ongoing Monroe affair secret is a disaster just waiting to happen, its ticking time bomb amplified by recreational drug use, that tell-all diary and Minnie’s impulsive nature. Her aggressive adventurousness doesn’t mean she doesn’t have plenty of the usual adolescent insecurities; nor does it prevent her from feeling “weird and creepy” each time she goes a little too far.
Heller’s script does a fine job condensing Gloeckner’s book without losing anything significant. She successfully translates its semi-graphic-novel balance (it’s about two-thirds prose, one-third panels and illustration) by having Sara Gunnarsdottir animate the frequent flowerings of Minnie’s imagination in a ’70s underground Bakshi/Crumb/psychedelic style, which often erupts amid the otherwise live-action imagery.
Most impressively, however, Heller maintains the book’s seriocomic ambivalence — which makes sense when reading the bright yet very immature first-person meanderings of a 15-year-old mind circa 1976 on the page, but might easily have curdled into sensationalism or grotesquerie onscreen. Minnie probably doesn’t know what the word “pederasty” is, and doesn’t think of herself as a victim. But at the same time, she’s very badly served by her lack of responsible adult role models — Mom, Monroe and their friends seem to be living improvisational lives that any children must just fit into as best they can.
Faithful to the book’s vision (if more physically attractive), Skarsgaard makes Monroe so easygoing and likable you sometimes forget that his passivity is actually a contemptible willingness to let his libido make decisions by default — for which he then blames “manipulative” Minnie. Given less screentime, Wiig nonetheless ultimately makes an equally strong impression as another not-quite-grownup with parenting skills to match.
Supporting roles are all nicely filled, but the pic is definitely carried by Powley, a bigscreen newcomer with some U.K. tube and stage credits (but no discernible Brit accent here). She invests Minnie with a strength of character, despite all hapless actions, that lends the pic necessary weight when it takes a slightly more conventional late turn toward the inevitable bottom-hitting crisis and upbeat bounce-back.
Design/tech contributions on the location-shot feature are fine, providing a credible Me Decade vibe without overselling the period’s kitschier aspects.