Lawrence Toppman

This ‘Teenage Girl’ will have you shaking your head

You don’t often hear the adjective “uncomfortable” used as a compliment. But you’re seldom going to come across a movie that makes you as uncomfortable as “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” yet seems as true to life.

As I haven’t been a teenage girl, I can’t say for sure that writer-director Marielle Heller gets all the way inside the psyche of Minnie, a sex-obsessed 15-year-old living in San Francisco in 1976. Heller was born three years later, so she’s doing some guesswork herself.

But as we watch Minnie (extraordinary 22-year-old British actress Bel Powley) bouncing blithely and often comically toward disaster, she seems painfully real. Only the rushed, confusing and credibility-stretching ending took me out of Minnie’s world.

The first shot of the film objectifies her: We see her butt, shot slightly from below, marching away from us. So does the first line of dialogue, spoken into the tape recorder where she records thoughts for her audio diary: “I had sex today.”

Her willing collaborator, 40-ish stoner Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) has been sleeping with Minnie’s mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig). In the lazy-minded way we associate with aging 1970s hippies in California, he’s happy to stay sloshed, stoned and servicing both.

Minnie remains connected to the amiable Monroe, first because she enjoys sexual arousal and then because she’s turned on by the power she exerts over him. But after tasting the apple of sin, she decides to sample the entire forbidden fruit stand. Soon she’s drinking, snorting cocaine, selling herself in a bar, doing a threesome, having a lesbian experience and recording her downfall – not that she sees it that way – in her diary.

This might seem sordid if Minnie didn’t experiment so cheerfully. “I think this makes me officially an adult, right?” she asks the microphone after losing her virginity. She sets out to do the things she has seen adults do, or perhaps just seen her unfit mother do: She looks for intimacy from people incapable of giving it and decides to manufacture some.

And who can advise her? Not her infantile mom, who thinks they could pass for sisters in a bar. Not Monroe, who dreams of starting a mail-order vitamin business. Not her former stepfather (Christopher Meloni), who’s caring, yet too controlling, and lives in another city. Certainly not Kimmie (Madeleine Waters), the shallow pal who takes unprotected sex even more casually than Minnie.

Heller, an actress who makes her own debut as writer-director here, alludes throughout the film to the Patty Hearst kidnapping. (Hearst was the heiress kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army and forced – or, by some accounts, willing – to help them commit crimes.) I inferred Heller meant Minnie had been taken prisoner by her own need for love, which carries her further on a downward spiral.

The crucial difference is that Minnie remains innocent. The film adapts Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel, and Icelandic animator Sara Gunnarsdottir expresses Minnie’s thoughts onscreen. Sometimes butterflies shoot out of Minnie; sometimes she bestrides the narrow city like a colossus; sometimes she looks like brash Aline Kominsky, an underground comics artist Gloeckner and Minnie admire.

Minnie’s trying on personalities, the way girls do. At the end, when she dances in her room with whirling abandon, we realize she’s still a girl; her actions have left her wiser but not sadder. (And not pregnant, which is beyond belief.) She’s still a long way from growing up, and the process will be painful, but we know she’ll make it.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Cast: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Kristen Wiig.

Writer-Director: Marielle Heller.

Length: 102 minutes.

Rating: R (strong sexual content including dialogue, graphic nudity, drug use, language and drinking – all involving teens.).

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