Theater actress Marielle Heller became obsessed when she read The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a 2002 illustrated novel by Phoebe Gloeckner that drew heavily from the author’s own troubled adolescence. Heller took it upon herself to adapt the book to the stage and star in the show five years ago. After that, the story was still stuck in her head, so now she has adapted it again, this time into a film, a jolt of truth that hits you with the force of a baseball bat across the face. It played at the Modern last week and expands to Tarrant County theaters this week.
The story begins with Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley), a 15-year-old growing up in San Francisco in 1976, joyously proclaiming, “I had sex today. Holy shit!” She then details how she lost her virginity to her mom’s 35-year-old boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). It is the first of many poor decisions Minnie will make, with her adolescent hormones in full gallop in an extraordinarily permissive time and place. Her newfound sexual confidence makes boys and the occasional girl fall all over her, though her not-great-to-begin-with academic performance starts spiraling down at the same time.
Gloeckner’s novel alternated text with skillful, scatological drawings and comic-book panels in a style recalling underground comics artists like R. Crumb and her personal heroine, Aline Kominsky. In that spirit (and in keeping with Minnie’s own interest in drawing), Heller’s film is decked out with animated interludes drawn in Gloeckner’s style by artist Sara Gunnarsdóttir. When a cute boy at school compliments Minnie, tiny colored butterflies fly out of her hair. When she drops acid, her body sprouts glowing red feathers and she flies above her bed.
These pictorial touches make the film unique and give us a glimpse into its heroine’s creative mind, but Heller makes sure the dysfunction is never far from the surface. She plays up the age difference between Minnie and Monroe by casting the 5’2” Powley opposite the 6’4” Skarsgård, and she includes a bit when Minnie jokingly threatens Monroe with telling her mom (Kristen Wiig) about what they’re doing. Monroe resoundingly fails to see the humor in this. Elsewhere, Minnie and her best friend (Madeleine Waters) decide to try to pass themselves off as prostitutes in a bar, which leads to them actually performing oral sex on two strange guys, and the aftermath is both hilarious and horrifying. Most of the people around Minnie suck — Monroe is a commitmentphobe full of get-rich-quick schemes, while her mom is a man-crazy alcoholic who keeps hard drugs flowing through the house — and eventually the family chaos drives her into the arms of a gorgeous lesbian (Margarita Levieva) who turns out to be a very bad person indeed.
The film is an astonishing introduction to Powley, a 23-year-old newcomer from the British stage. As powerful as Minnie is on the page, she’s a hurricane force in Powley’s rendering, whether she’s squealing girlishly at Monroe’s flirting with her, lighting up with desire as she tells Monroe, “I want you to fuck me,” or standing on her bed and screaming angrily to The Stooges’ “Down on the Street.” The way she turns up her nose and tells Monroe, “We should have a talk about our relationship,” is the way a little girl would say it when she’s trying to sound like an adult, and the fact that she’s doing this while she’s wearing only panties makes the scene all the funnier and more uncomfortable. Similarly, it’s hard not to feel for her when her eyes pool with heartbreak as Monroe inevitably tries to break things off with her.
Our culture’s discomfort with girls’ sexuality is a big reason why so many movies about girls avoid sex and why so many teen movies about sex take the boys’ point of view. The few films that try to tackle this subject often either play it for laughs or turn into condemnatory sermons. Heller instead takes in her heroine’s promiscuous sex life with an objective, nonjudgmental approach that’s even more effective than Judd Apatow’s equally grungy but far more conventional Trainwreck. Perhaps her rejiggered ending gives too tidy a resolution to Gloeckner’s messy story, but The Diary of a Teenage Girl locates all the good and bad things that sex does for its main character and sends her out into the world wiser for it. I don’t know if Marielle Heller has another movie like this in her, but I’m glad she gave us this one.
[box_info]The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Starring Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgård. Written and directed by Marielle Heller. Rated R.[/box_info]