Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
I would like to sit Michael Bay down and make him watch writer-director Marielle Heller’s THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL, CLOCKWORK-ORANGE-style (eyes pried open) to teach him that this is how you introduce a female on screen: ass first, but completely in charge of her curiosity-driven, newly-attained prowess. Based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s novel, the provocative picture Heller paints captures the essence of sexual discovery, female identity and coming of age in an almost pristine package. It’s genuinely remarkable.
Fifteen-year-old Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley, who’s like if Zooey Deschanel cut out the quirk and morphed into Mae Whitman) isn’t at all like any other fifteen-year-old. She’s currently on a triumphant sex high after losing her virginity to – now here’s where it gets sticky – her beautiful mother’s (Kristen Wiig) 35-year-old boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). As Minnie pours over the details, recounting the romance to her tape recorder, she reveals the pair engaged in a flirtatious friendship before embarking on this epic (and, well, illegal) step. He, or rather their act, awakens a latent feeling inside – one of newfound self-assurance, sexual swagger and a glow that hadn’t previously switched on. This ticket to genuine freedom opens up a gateway, a path to creative freedom and intuition. However, things don’t get dangerous until other people – her stepdad Pascal (Christopher Meloni), mom Charlotte and sister Gretel (Abby Wait) – begin to suspect something is up.
Heller’s absence of condemnation of the protagonist is grounded in raw, naked truth and astounding realism. Introspection is intimacy. It may sound controversial for me to say, but this is how younger women should learn to deal with their burgeoning womanhood. It deals with situations in a straight-forward, healthy and sex-positive manner, showing the consequences (in a non-after-school special kind of way) and the rewards. Powley gives a staggeringly fearless, ferocious and fantastic performance. She’s incredible. I hope we see more of her for years to come. Skarsgård infuses his dynamic performance with a vulnerability we’ve not really seen before on screen. Wiig’s role may be relatively small, but her skills pack a punch. Charlotte’s not “The World’s Best Mom,” but she’s trying the best she can. She’s caring and supportive (and with a covetable wardrobe to boot), but not grown up enough to give structure to the girl’s life. Then again, it is San Francisco in 1976 so anything goes. Actually, given the subject matter, this film couldn’t be set at any other time in history because it would be too taboo.
Aesthetics also play a huge part of the film’s warm and hazy atmosphere. The soundtrack, filled with killer tunes from rockin’ stompers like T. Rex, Heart, Television and the Dwight Tilley Band (whose song astute audiences will recognize from YOU’RE NEXT), will give viewers a burning desire similar to the heroine’s. Brandon Trost’s cinematography sparkles – it’s a thing of beauty, again similar to Minnie. Jonah Markowitz’s production design and Carmen Grande’s costume design also earn top marks, transporting us back to the 70’s.
With so much to love, there’s very little to dislike. Though well-suited to her character, the graphic illustrations that appear can get a little too twee and begin feeling derivative of films like AMERICAN SPLENDOR and CRUMB. The film wouldn’t have suffered without it. The climax is also a little on the predictable side. We know Minnie’s confessional tapes will be found. It’s only a matter of when. But that’s it – a feat considering we’re deeply engrossed in a film about an inappropriate relationship. Depending on how liberal you are, how you react to Heller’s film will say a lot about you. My mind is open – so long as it’s a story worth being told. And this is.
THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL is now playing in limited release, and opens in Dallas tomorrow. To find where it’s playing, go here.
Our interview with star Bel Powley and writer-director Marielle Heller: