Review: The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Sundance 2015)
PLOT: A fifteen-year-old girl (Bel Powley) living with her free-spirited mom (Kristen Wiig) in 1970’s San Francisco, falls into a torrid affair with her mother’s boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård).
REVIEW: THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL is yet another of the big Sundance acquisition titles to play this year, garnering a deal with Sony Classics – no small feat considering last year they were the ones who bought WHIPLASH. While not quite up to that level, co-writer/director Marielle Heller’s debut should nonetheless play extremely well to a broader-than-average art-house crowd, with young women in particularly likely to embrace this realistic and no-holds-barred account of a girl’s sexual awakening.
While a film about statutory rape may not be the easiest sell, there’s something very sophisticated about the way Heller treats the material that makes this feel more like a European film than a mainstream Hollywood one in that Powley’s character is able to experiment sexually throughout and not fall prey to the harsh morality often imposed by the studios or MPAA. Clearly, what’s happening between the thirty-five-year-old Skarsgård and naïve 15-year-old Powley (who’s actually a British actress in her twenties) is statutory rape – with no ambiguity. Yet, there’s something empowering about Powley’s character, an unconventional beauty with brains and talent to spare. Taking a page from its graphic novel source material, Powley’s character is a budding cartoonist, with her creations often animated onscreen giving this a unique animated-live action hybrid feel that’s visually striking.
Powley is absolutely terrific in the part, giving the character the naiveté of youth, but also a sense of independence and self-knowledge that makes her someone to admire. TRUE BLOOD’s Alexander Skarsgård’s got one of the trickier parts, with him hiding his powerful physique behind baggy clothes and a goofy seventies mustache, making him seem more like a schlub than you’d think possible. He also doesn’t play him strictly as a monster, but rather as someone whose morality is very, very skewed.
THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL also offers Kristen Wiig another strong indie part, with her playing it totally straight as Powley’s coke-snorting, free-love embracing mom. Wiig’s decision to focus on indie films has made her a frequent traveler to Sundance over the years and she seems to have a good nose for material. This is another winner, and that she’s able to keep the audience’s sympathy while allowing a dangerous situation to happen under her nose is no small feat. Chris Meloni also has a good (if small) part as Powley’s former step-dad, who maintains a friendly interest in her future.
It remains to be seen how the MPAA will react to THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL’s frankness, but hopefully it won’t be too restrictive as there’s more value in this for younger people than in mainstream YA fare. Powley’s performance and Heller’s creative direction really elevate this way beyond the norm for coming-of-age tales, and hopefully it’ll find a good audience once Sony puts it out (a summer berth would seem like a good idea). This is yet another Sundance gem – so keep your eyes peeled.