Smells Like Teen Spirit

As Minnie, the boldly curious and sexually precocious 15-year-old girl who inaugurates an affair with her mother’s roustabout boyfriend in Diary of a Teenage Girl, Bel Powley is a revelation. With her saucer eyes popping beneath dowdy bangs, Powley perfectly registers the outsized emotions of a teen exploring the sticky chaos of adulthood; Minnie is all snap judgments, lightning revelations, puppy love, daily heartbreak. It’s the performance of the year so far.

Adapted from the Phoebe Gloeckner novel of the same name by director Marielle Heller, Diary of a Teenage Girl is a beautifully nuanced portrait of one girl’s awakening to her own artistic powers, all channeled through a sexual journey that is, on its surface, a descent into transgression and social taboo.

The film is set in San Francisco in the mid-’70s. Minnie’s mother, Charlotte (a wonderfully understated Kristen Wiig), is a boho slacker flailing in the post-’60s swamp of sex and drugs. When she suggests with a carefree flourish that her boyfriend, Monroe (a perfectly cast Alexander Skarsgård), take Minnie out to a bar, the stage is set: Minnie, with a gleam in her eyes that is equal parts fear, innocence and devious courage, asks Monroe to fuck her.

Despite outward appearances, Diary is no Lolita-like tale of age-inappropriate perversion and objectification — quite the opposite, actually. Heller keeps an intimate focus on Minnie’s progress, neither demonizing nor romanticizing her situation, which is that of a young woman fitfully coming of age. There is darkness and pain in her journey, but also a gritty form of liberation.

A rebellious teen, Minnie pushes the boundaries, emboldened by powers she only partly understands. The movie is honest and candid about female sexuality, neither casting Minnie as a helpless victim nor portraying her appetites, her growing sexual sophistication, as some kind of affliction.

Not since Jennifer Lawrence stormed the meth-addled Ozarks in Winter’s Bone has a movie dealt so evenly and openly, so artistically, with the blunt realities of a young woman’s journey into selfhood. There are no heroes and villains here, just fallible people negotiating the outcome of their choices. Movies like Winter’s Bone and Diary reveal a continuing evolution toward women taking charge of their own narrative, not as an oppositional tactic but as a movement toward a richer, fuller revelation of being in all its infinite complexity — in all its sloppy, startling reality.

In the final reckoning, Minnie, so imperfectly human, so perfectly understandable, refuses to wallow in the mire of regret and self-doubt. She owns her past, poor choices and all, and is transformed but not defined by the dangerous games she so earnestly plays. And by avoiding the bunk politics of resentment and blame, Diary proves to be, ironically, a feminist statement of the highest order, and a great piece of filmmaking. (Bijou Metro

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