"The Diary Of A Teenage Girl" Wallows In Discomfort

Any logline that includes the phrase “sexual odyssey” is a tee up for controversy, confusion, or both, a tease that Marielle Heller’s “The Diary Of A Teenage Girl” – based on Phoebe Gluckner’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name – absolutely makes good on. The 70s-set dramedy wields taboo like a cheap firecracker with a makeshift fuse, concurrently panicky and confrontational and overconfident, much like its 15 year-old lead character. As an echo of her addled mind, it works. As entertainment, not as much.

21 year-old British stage actor Bel Powley leads as San Francisco high schooler and aspiring artist, Minnie. Living with her mercurial mother (Kristen Wiig) and younger sister Gretel (Abby Wait), she finds herself in the middle of an explosive sexual awakening. In between obsessing about sex, listening to glam rock, and experimenting with drugs, she documents her stream of consciousness with a portable cassette recorder.

From the first scene, the prime object of her affection is clear – her mom’s 35 year-old boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). Complete with porno mustache and wide leg jeans, he’s the embodiment of 70s sleaze, cocaine sweats and all.

Soon, Minnie and Monroe have sex, with Heller’s screenplay noncomittal as to who initiates. While not quite NC-17 material, the sex scenes (there are many between the two) are exceptionally graphic. If nothing else, audiences will know what they’re in for right off the bat.

These sequences are grotesque, upsetting, and presented so matter-of-factly that the only way to appreciate what the movie is doing – exploring untethered female sexuality – is to accept the unpleasantness in trade. Not once is the term “sexual predator” spoken. It’s an aggressive précis that some will see as empowering. It’s also profoundly uncomfortable and mostly one-note.

To Heller’s credit, the performances are uniformly on point (Powley struggles a little bit with her American accent) and the production values are such that few will believe she hasn’t made a movie before. Even though she employs her premise like buckshot, she’s very aware of what she’s doing – even if it’s frequently troublesome.

Minnie’s art – occasionally brought to life in vibrant animation that evokes “Yellow Submarine” pop artist Peter Max – is a nice fit, though only in the context of the film’s dysmorphia. It’s as wild and colorful and ugly as its characters, underscoring the pic’s era but mostly reminding us of its unpleasantness. When Minnie sprouts animated wings and hovers above her bed, the metaphor is only notable in its obviousness. Much like the rest of the film.

Art films can be challenging without being antagonistic, profound without being ponderous. Every beat of “Diary” feels calculated, a mean feat for a movie without much of a story.

No matter how much of it is true to life, it’s a very specific film targeted squarely at viewers who led especially confused teenage lives themselves. For anyone else, there isn’t much to mine. Other than lots of squirming.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: August 7, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Marielle Heller
Screenwriter: Marielle Heller
Starring: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgard, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Meloni, Abby Wait, Madeleine Waters
MPAA Rating: R (for strong sexual content including dialogue, graphic nudity, drug use, language and drinking – all involving teens)