The Diary of a Teenage Girl is an adaptation of a candid autobiography by Phoebe Gloeckner about growing up with her flighty mother in San Francisco in the mid-1970s. It is the first feature film directed by actor Marielle Heller, and one of the most brutally honest depictions of the conflicting emotions and hormonedriven escapades of a troubled teen ever brought to the screen. Its success is, in no small part, due to the captivating performance of British actress Bel Powley in the role of Minnie Goetz, whose journey from child to adult is presented without judgment or lasciviousness.
In the opening scene 15-year-old Minnie reveals breathlessly: “I had sex today! Holy shit!” We soon discover that the man to whom she surrendered her virginity — most willingly — was Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), the latest lover of her mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig).
The fact that Minnie is underage, and that Monroe is more than twice her age, immediately raises difficult questions of child exploitation, if not abuse — but somehow the film skirts such concerns partly because Minnie is so delighted to be loved and so happy to have found someone who thinks she’s attractive (she has a poor opinion of her looks and her body), and partly because Monroe is so childlike himself. Some may claim that the film condones this kind of behaviour, but Heller and her actors depict the relationship as strangely innocent and positive, the easygoing Monroe given little chance to refuse in the face of Minnie’s singleminded determination to be loved.
And we have to remember the time and the place when this very personal story was taking place: only a decade earlier San Francisco had been the birthplace of the hippie movement, the home of the “summer of love”.
The diary of the title is a tape recording that Minnie, alone in her bedroom, regularly updates while posters of pop stars of the period gaze down on her. In the next room, Charlotte and Monroe continue their relationship, and that doesn’t seem to bother Minnie too much — having discovered sex, and the power it gives her, she seems strangely relaxed about her relationship with Monroe and, while he’s otherwise occupied, she seduces a boy her own age. Of course, she does her best to keep the affair secret from her mother, who is frequently off the planet (the film’s credits list a member of the crew responsible for rolling joints).
As time goes by, Minnie’s experiments with sex take off in more radical directions: a threesome involving her best friend (Madeleine Waters) and a lesbian relationship with Tabatha (Margarita Levieva), a drug addict. Yet through it all, Minnie’s wide-eyed innocence and Powley’s beautiful, frank performance encourage us to believe that all will turn out well for Minnie, that the youthful experiments that some adults would consider shocking will stand her in good stead for a stable future.
Gloeckner’s book consisted of both text and drawings, and Heller’s film — like the Australian Look Both Ways by Sarah Watt — occasionally animates her drawings and dreams in attractive and unexpected ways. Diary is worlds away from the kind of crude, cheap comedy that’s so fashionable at the moment; it’s sexually candid and frequently amusing, but it also has considerable depth and substance and is steeped in the reality of its characters. For a first feature, it’s quite an achievement. During a six-week period between October and December 2006, six sex workers in the English city of Ipswich were strangled in the London Road area. The murders, not surprisingly, attracted huge media coverage and when local resident Steve Wright, a forklift driver, was found guilty of the crimes and sentenced to life imprisonment he was dubbed the “Suffolk Strangler”. From this unlikely material Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork fashioned a highly unusual stage musical that, under the direction of Rufus Norris, had a successful run at London’s National Theatre. Norris has now brought the stage show to the screen as his second feature, London Road (after his edgy Broken in 2012, a devastating examination of London suburban life).
The dialogue, which is based on actual interviews with witnesses, residents and others, in- The Diary of a Teenage Girl (MA15+) Limited national release from Thursday London Road (MA15+) Limited national release from Thursday Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgard, top, and Skarsgard with Kristen Wiig, above right, in The Diary of a Teenage Girl; Paul Thornley and Olivia Colman, centre, in London Road, below