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'The Diary Of A Teenage Girl' Can't Find The Edge For Its Own Coming Of Age Drama

courtesty of Sony Pictures Classics

It's hard to make a film about sex, because the sight of sex on a movie screen turns human brains to mush. Once naked bodies and stuff like that appear on screen, you've got a sex film more than you've got a film about sex.

Marielle Heller's The Diary of a Teenage Girl shows a lot of sex, and most of it takes place between a girl character who's only 15, and a boy character who's 35. That situation also sets people off.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl does get the diary-ness of the story. The action feels immediate and confessional, in the way of a 15-year-old girl's diary. The picture takes place in a constant present tense. There's no past, no future, so no context or perspective. For Minnie Katz (Bel Powley), the teenage girl in question, her whole life hangs in the balance at every moment. She's either ecstatic, or she's in the dumps.

The movie opens on Minnie walking through Golden Gate Park in San Francisco in 1976. The shot is essentially of her bottom, as Minnie thinks to herself, "I had sex today." She smiles and she makes a beeline for her room at home, where she pulls a cassette tape recorder from her closet and gets to dictating.

Minnie, her sister and their mother (Kristin Wiig) live in the Haight-Ashbury part of San Francisco, which was the heart of world hippie life at the time, and Minnie's growing up is surrounded by a lot of sex and drugs. She reads Twisted Sister comic books with the bizarre and voluptuous drawings of R. Crumb. It turns out that the sex Minnie had was with her mother's boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), a guy with perfect, slimy, self-involved good looks. Think Sawyer from the TV series Lost.

For an adult audience all this spells trouble – the 35-year-old mother's boyfriend, the loose home life, and the tape recorder, of course.

Young Minnie lives a wild life. She and her friend Kimmie go to parties; they try prostitution with a couple of young boys for the kick, but once is way more than enough for them. She has sex with a woman a few times. Minnie is topless for a good bit of the film – actress Bel Powley is over 21, by the way.

But for all the wildness, The Diary of a Teenage Girl feels tame, as if director Marielle Heller is afraid to let go. This is her first movie, and a director of greater experience might be better at threading her way through the thickets the movie sets up, but Heller gets stuck in the morass. French directors like Jacques Doillon or Catherine Breillat would have characters careening around the screen, moaning and bellowing to show the depth of the feelings and the disruption. Heller keeps things awfully civil. Minnie may do things that are unwise, but she still combs her hair, dresses respectably – for the most part – and doesn't act out too much, so it's hard to tell if the film sees her as out of control.

The movie also doesn't know what to do with the mother. It hints at judging her because she's built no moral framework for her children, but it doesn't quite go there. The film is also uncomfortable – to use a prissy word – with Monroe, but still lets him off the hook. He may be a creep, and his mental age may be no older than Minnie, but the picture hasn't figured him out. He seems just as lost as Minnie and the others.

At the same time, The Diary of a Teenage Girl doesn't have the nerve either to condemn the times for moral confusion, or to try to see what was going on in that time in American history when so many ideas and behaviors shifted. The Diary of a Teenage Girl has jumped into the water, but isn't yet ready to swim.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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