Just over two years ago, a film called "Blue is the Warmest Color" took the arthouse world by storm, depicting an erotic romance saga unlike any we'd ever seen before. Two years later, an indie film titled "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" opened to similar enthusiasm in Park City, showcasing a sexual awakening of a different sort. As its title and Sundance roots suggest, this film is smaller and more intimate, but no less engaging and unique.
In Marielle Heller's outstanding debut feature, Bel Powley stars as Minnie Goetze, a 15-year old aspiring cartoonist living with her mom and younger sister in San Francisco. It's the 1970s, when sex, drugs and freedom prevailed, a fact that isn't lost on our young protagonist. Indeed, this year, Minnie vows to take a big step into womanhood by losing her virginity. And her passions lead her to an unexpected target, namely her mother's latest boyfriend Monroe, a handsome older man in his 30s. Soon enough, a one-on-one encounter between the two develops into a full-blown affair. Of course, the situation quickly gets complicated, as Minnie gets a crash course in love, sex and adulthood, in a film that really puts the "coming" in coming of age.
Yes, I'm aware that last sentence may sound crass and reductive, but the overt sexuality is in fact a central theme in the film and one of its best attributes. "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" feels like a response to the countless teen sex comedies centered around young men, providing a refreshing feminine spin on the topic. Indeed, the first line out of Powley's mouth is "I had sex today".
The film truly goes "there" as we flash back to the events leading up to that bold declaration, never shying away from the taboo nature of this inappropriate relationship. But the film smartly avoids vilifying our protagonist, even when some of her actions would reasonably attract some slut-shaming. Heller's screenplay brilliantly lays the groundwork by allowing the audience to be privy to Minnie's most personal thoughts, aspirations and motivations, thereby defining her by more than just her scandalous actions. The way the films explores the various relationships in Minnie's life - best friends, mother-daughter, lovers, father-daughter, siblings - is particularly fascinating.
And the wonderful screenwriting is given even greater nuance by Powley's phenomenal performance. In just her second film role, she handles this tricky character with ease, finding a deft balance between the character's youthful naivety and burgeoning maturity. And she's only one part of a terrific core trio that includes a charming Alexander Skarsgård as Monroe and reigning indie queen Kristen Wiig in one of her best performances as Minnie's oblivious but streetwise mother. Of course, it's easy to shine when you're cast in such a flattering light. Brandon Trost's warm cinematography was a deserving winner of the Best Cinematography award at Sundance, convincingly giving the impression of a film shot during the heyday of 1970s American cinema.
Ultimately, "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" may prove too discomfiting for some. Even I would freely admit that it does stretch our character's nymphomania a bit far at times. And yet, this is exactly why this fine piece of filmmaking is so important in current cinema. I love "Superbad" just as much as the next guy, but it's good to be reminded that girls wanna have fun too.