The first time we see 15-year-old Minnie Goetze in Marielle Heller’s extraordinary and often extraordinarily uncomfortable “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” the aspiring cartoonist is walking — no, striding — down a sun-dappled San Francisco street. It is 1976, and our heroine looks like she could take on the world. Then, her voice-over: “I had sex today. Holy (expletive)!”
Played with Oscar-worthy emotional precision by 23-year-old British actress Bel Powley, Minnie breaks out a knowing, almost gleeful smile; moments later, we see her toggle between confidence and insecurity. It’s a bravura opening that signals the complexity to come.
Unfortunately, the guy Minnie is so proud of having sex with is her mother’s 35-year-old boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). And even by the “Parenting? What parenting?” standards of semi-bohemian, Carter-era San Francisco, that is still a terrible idea for everyone involved, not to mention statutory rape and child abuse.
But then, boundaries are a bit of a problem in Minnie’s home. Minnie’s mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), drinks, smokes weed and snorts coke openly in front of Minnie and her sister, Gretel (Abby Wait). She’s the sort of mom who cannot decide if she sympathizes with Patty Hearst or sees her as exploited and encourages Minnie to “show off your body a little bit.”
After Minnie and Monroe head to a bar at Charlotte’s suggestion (!), things take a turn for the illegal. That the encounter is portrayed with a lack of judgment — and, more importantly for the film, smarm — is a tonal tightrope walk on Heller’s part.
Based on cartoonist Phoebe Gloeckner’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, “Diary” is very much Minnie’s tale, which she sees as one of agency and mature decision-making. Minnie is mildly outraged when a friend suggests that Monroe is taking advantage of her. He is. But she, naturally, thinks she is consenting to all of this and, besides, she thinks of herself as “not really attractive at all,” and this relationship makes her feel hugely powerful. And yet….
Minnie knows only lousy role models — a whole parade of them. Her former quasi-stepfather, Pascal (Christopher Meloni), initially seems like he might be a voice of adult reason after he comes back into her life. As he says to Minnie, your mother “does not live life according to rules I understand.” Get in line, man. But no, he, too, disappoints.
The only decent adult we see in Minnie’s life is semi-imaginary. After she writes a fan letter to Bay Area artist Aline Kominsky (aka Mrs. Robert Crumb), Minnie subsequently imagines Aline counseling her as she walks down the street.
Filmed in washed out sepias, faded-photo style, and blessed with a brilliant ’70s-hip soundtrack — including the most gleeful use of the Stooges I’ve ever seen — Heller deftly integrates all of this into a movie full of of ambivalence and contradiction, power and vulnerability.
When Monroe eventually ends the relationship, he casually tries to bond with the devastated Minnie: “I’ve been in love once myself.” Ooof.
That, along with her mother’s jaw-dropping response to the relationship, sends Minnie into a self-destructive spiral. “I hate men but I (expletive) them hard, hard, hard and thoughtlessly because I hate them so much,” Minnie voice-overs.
In some ways, I — and one hopes most male critics — feel wildly underqualified to judge certain things about “Diary.” Which is to say there is something inherently skeevy about 40-something dudes discussing the sexuality of teen girls at all.
That said, I have been told by actual women that it near perfectly articulates what it is to be a teenage girl: Full of desire, full of disbelief about a world she is suddenly allowed to enter, Minnie is made both powerful and vulnerable by the kind of teenage girl exuberance that both mesmerizes people and simultaneously allows them to hurt you.
Which is to say, at that age, freedom is just another word for the absence of grown-ups with your best interests at heart.
‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’
Starring: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgard, Kristen Wiig
Rating: Rated R for strong sexual content including dialogue, graphic nudity, drug use, language and drinking — all involving teens
Running time: 1 hours, 42 minutes
Theater: Alamo South