Thursday, August 20, 2015

She's sexually aggressive at 15

Diary of a Teenage Girl takes a serio-comic look at a provocative subject.

The filmmaking is lively and creative. The central performance is ripe with the burgeoning sexuality of a 15-year-old, and there's little question that the movie evokes a loosey/goosey, mid-1970s moment when the line between adult and adolescent behavior got a little blurry.

That social observation may be the most cogent thing about The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a movie in which a teenager has a sexual relationship with her mother's 30something boyfriend.

Bel Powley's performance as young Minnie Goetz should elevate her status as a bold and daring actress, and director Mirelle Heller makes a provocative debut with a movie that leaves us to sort through its many issues.

Put another way, Diary is an engaging act of assertion, as brash as its main character and not necessarily any more perceptive.

We know a lot about what Minnie thinks because her tape-recorded confessions give the movie its on-going perspective. She's constantly narrating her life for us.

"I had sex today. Holy shit," says Minnie at the outset.

Minnie not only has sex on that day, but on many other days: Leaving hearts and flowers at the door, Heller emphasizes the physicality of female desire.

When I say that a movie includes a sexual relationship between a 15-year-old girl and her mother's adult boyfriend, I can almost feel knees jerking with outrage. I get that.

I felt some of that, as well. I took the story on the level it's offered while also remembering that Diary isn't just a story about sexual awakening; it's about a particular sexual awakening -- one in which the characters don't seem to care much about boundaries.

Based on a semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, Diary seems to rely on environment to explain Minnie's unregulated behavior. It's not spelled out, but we know that she's seen plenty of adults whose behavior is no less regulated.

Minnie is alternately insecure and confident. She's also entirely unaware (maybe the movie is, as well) of the fact that her sexual choice might be an expression of anger toward her mother (Kristen Wiig).

Wing's Charlotte never has provided a stable environment for Minnie or her younger sister (Abby Wait).

Charlotte split with Minnie's stepfather (Christopher Meloni), smokes pot and, on occasion, snorts coke. She can't hold a job, and has taken up with the shiftless Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), a grown man who hasn't matured much beyond Minnie's age level.

Skarsgard's Monroe is the kind of guy who makes himself at home wherever he happens to land; he doesn't spend much time agonizing about his behavior. Maybe he thinks it's cool to be sexually open with Minnie.

For all that, The Diary of a Teenage Girl isn't one long squirmfest, and it's not shy about seeing Minnie as a seductress who wants to have lots of sex, some of it even with boys her own age.

Perhaps as a way to honor the movie's roots as a graphic novel, Heller includes animation -- sometimes showing us Minnie's fantasies.

Minnie not only discovers sexual pleasure, she learns that there's power in sex. At one point, she imagines herself as a giantess rumbling through San Francisco's streets, a sexual powerhouse.

Fair to say that at 15, Minnie, who's also an aspiring cartoonist, doesn't know how to control the forces she's unleashing.

I'm guessing that Heller makes an assumption about her audience: Perhaps she thinks that we already know that a sexual relationship between a 15-year-old and a man in his 30s is neither legally nor in any other way acceptable. She doesn't lecture us about it.

Instead, she takes us inside Minnie's world. She refuses to condemn anyone.

That's OK, but it would have helped if Heller had dug a bit deeper. Minnie's perspective gives the movie its personality, but it can't help but be a bit limited.

Powley, a British actress who's really in her early 20s, makes a willing co-conspirator for Heller. With her eyes popped wide open, Powley conveys Minnie's desire, bolstered by intermittent bursts of bravado.

In Powley and Heller's hands, Diary feel as alive as its young protagonist. And by the movie's end, it's clear that Heller has fashioned another coming-of-age story -- albeit one that brims with sex, talk about sex and nudity.

Diary of a Teenage Girl is an odd duck of a movie: Brave and cheeky, but not an inch removed from the sometimes wanton behavior of its characters. How you feel about that may well determine how you feel about the movie.

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