The NZIFF, on now, is consistently excellent and I highly recommend seeing as many of the films as you can. The films are often fresh from the European festival circuit, while others go on to become extremely popular, such as last year’s It Follows and The Babadook. The Diary of a Teenage Girl had its debut at Sundance and got a lot of attention for its style and performances. The film is based on the graphic novel of the same name by cartoonist Phoebe Gloeckner, and is the first feature from writer/director Marielle Heller. It is an excellent film in many ways, but has some elements that will be challenging for some viewers—it certainly was for me.
The teenage girl whose diary we are watching is 15-year-old Minnie Goetz, played with a real depth and frankness by Bel Powley, who lives with her mother and sister in mid-1970s San Francisco. It is a coming-of-age film and deals with the usual topics of the genre—friendship, drugs, family, sex. It is most concerned with sex. What sets The Diary of a Teenage Girl apart from the pack is the way it centralises the female adolescent experience in an open and believable way. Minnie is a budding cartoonist and her drawings are frequently animated and sometimes take over the screen from the photographed images. Minnie also records her thoughts onto a tape recorder in her bedroom allowing her to narrate the film. These two techniques allow Minnie to convey her thoughts and feelings in a comprehensive way, thus living up to the diary in the title. The costumes, production design and cinematography are all fantastic and create a really convincing vision of its 1970s setting.
In addition to Powley there are strong performances from the wonderful Kristen Wiig as Minnie’s dysfunctional hippie mother, Charlotte. She is not coping well with the fact that she is no longer young and begins to see the teenaged Minnie as competition, which unfortunately becomes true. She still acts like a teenager, always partying with a multitude of friends at the family home. They are the generation of hippies who ten years previously, in the mid-to-late 1960s, had inhabited the acid soaked Haight-Ashbury district. The film nails the feeling of the 60s being well and truly over and the mood of the eighties only just coming into form. There is a treat for fans of television’s Law and Order: SVU with Christopher Meloni playing against type as Minnie’s stuffy academic ex-stepfather, Pascal.
Alexander Skarsgård plays Monroe, Charlotte’s boyfriend who becomes Minnie’s lover. He is charming and pathetic, handsome enough to be able to get away with anything. The film starts with the story of how they first have sex. The depiction of their relationship is what I found challenging. The film operates as a diary; we see things from Minnie’s perspective, and there are incredibly uncomfortable scenes that depict an illegal and immoral sexual relationship as romantic and fun. The fact that the film does not moralise about its characters will cause some to hate it. It trusts us to know what is acceptable and what isn’t.
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What saves the film from falling off the very precarious perch that its premise creates is the respect and affection it has for Minnie. The camera doesn’t leer at her frequently naked body or judge her for any of her behaviours, as lesser films would. This success is probably because the film is by, about, and for women. It is stylish and funny, but also poignant and bold. It signals bright futures in cinema for Bel Powley and especially writer/director Marielle Heller, who has made an incredibly strong first feature film.