Girl, uninterrupted

Required reading?

Required reading?

Rated 4.0

Before she made Phoebe Gloeckner’s novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl into a movie, actress Marielle Heller adapted it into a play in which she herself played the title character, 15-year-old Minnie Goetze. The play was produced in 2010 to acclaim and now Heller makes her feature-film writing and directing debut with this screen incarnation of The Diary, and it’s a remarkably assured debut. True, it comes within a hair’s breadth of wearing out its welcome and could stand to be 10 or 15 minutes shorter, but that’s more of a nitpick than a serious criticism.

In the movie, the role of Minnie is played by the English actress Bel Powley, a piece of casting so perfect that Minnie’s self-description in her diary (“shortish … with broad shoulders and broad hips … a squarish face … big eyes that are green, a biggish nose that tilts upward …”) might have been written by Powley about herself. Minnie lives in San Francisco with her slightly boozy, very divorced mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), her 13-year-old sister Gretel (Abby Wait) and a cat. It’s 1976, that uncertain twilight era of the “Me Decade,” midway between the Haight-Ashbury 1960s and the Age of Disco. The bank-robbing exploits of Patty Hearst are all over the news, but the Symbionese Liberation Army’s threatened revolution has been indefinitely postponed.

A spirit of rebellion survives in Minnie, however, and it takes the form of embarking on an affair with her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). That’s what prompts her to begin her tape-recorded diary: she remarks that she’s just had sex for the first time, and she wonders if she looks different, if people can tell. Like Gloeckner, Heller neither exploits Minnie’s situation nor condemns Monroe as a predator, reflecting the fact that in 1976 such a thing, while certainly frowned upon, wasn’t considered to be quite the creepy taboo it would become in time.

Minnie’s burgeoning, sometimes reckless sex life parallels her blossoming talent as an artist, influenced by the underground comics of Aline Kominsky and R. Crumb. In the novel this is illustrated by Gloeckner’s own art, in the movie by sequences charmingly (if naughtily) animated by Sara Gunnarsdóttir.

These sequences provide a decorative, light-fingered filigree to Heller’s sure-handed distillation of the novel; along with Powley’s commanding and confident performance, they give us a nuanced, multidimensional picture of Minnie. She’s not just a cauldron of boiling hormones—though she is certainly that, and those hormones often seem in danger of bubbling out of control: in a threesome with Monroe and her best friend Kimmie (Madeleine Waters), in a larky foray with Kimmie into casual prostitution, in a fling with the alluring, streetwise Tabatha (Margarita Levieva).

Learning to control such impulses is part of growing up, and Minnie manages, even if it’s sometimes a near-run thing. She and Kimmie agree that selling blowjobs in a public bathroom was a mistake, and she pulls back from the brink when Tabatha tries to tempt her beyond her comfort zone. Minnie’s trial-and-error progress through adolescence rings true, and the movie’s upbeat ending is well and fairly earned.