When it comes to The Diary of a Teenage Girl, it appears it's all there in the name. The film does indeed rifle through the innermost thoughts of a youth on the cusp of womanhood. It also charts a coming-of-age journey. Boys are involved, as well as acts of rebellion, plus arguments with those in positions of authority.
So far, so standard, but thankfully there's more to this amusing adolescent awakening. Actually, the stirring that is central to the movie happens both on screen and off. In the story, San Francisco-based 15-year-old Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) follows her urges into an affair with the two-decades-older Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), who also happens to be the boyfriend of her mother (Kristen Wiig). In charting her escapades, the film offers a frank and funny exploration of the teenage female experience, and clearly enjoys doing so.
Life lessons are learned in both situations. It's not that Minnie's issues, as told to a tape recorder that doubles as her audio diary beginning on the day she first has sex, chart drastically new territory. Struggling with lust, love and the onset of maturity has been covered before, just rarely with such a judgment-free embrace of the awkward reality of the age group in focus, or with a no-holds-barred portrayal of teenage girlhood at its centre.
The way in which first-time writer/director Marielle Heller presents the tale, adapting Phoebe Gloeckner's semi-autobiographical graphic novel of the same name, and overlaying spirited narration over upbeat antics before letting less glowing aspects of Minnie's life seep into both, certainly gives The Diary of a Teenage Girl a distinctive yet authentic glow. Using a '70s soundtrack to mirror its period setting, as well as working in animated interludes that mimic the lead character's dreams of becoming a cartoonist, similarly assist.
Ample credit must also go to the exuberant Powley, who doesn't just make what could've been a conventional role credible, candid and complex — she makes it her own. Her version of Minnie strives and stumbles in a fashion both painfully and poignantly relatable to anyone who has been there and done that (been a teenage girl, that is). Her interpretation of the character ensures the contradictions of youth are completely understandable, be they fearlessness and fragility, optimism and uncertainty, or stubbornness and sincerity.
That's she's the film's driving force and shining star is considerable feat, particularly for an actor otherwise only known for stealing the show in British princess-themed comedy A Royal Night Out earlier this year, and more so given the cast she's working with. Wiig playing dramatic and Skarsgård skirting the edge of creepiness are both great, as is Christopher Meloni in a brief appearance as Minnie's former stepfather, but the movie can only belong to one person. Yes, The Diary of a Teenage Girl lives up to its title, and that's something to celebrate.