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The Diary of a Teenage Girl - DVD Review

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 2 out of 5

MARIELLE Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl has to rate as one of the most provocative – if little seen – films of 2015.

An adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s heavily autobiographical novel, this focuses on the sexual awakening of a 15-year-old girl in mid-70s San Francisco. But anyone anticipating a female version of American Pie had best think again: this is designed to leave you sitting uncomfortably.

Minnie Goetz (played by British newcomer Bel Powley) is the 15-year-old in question, whose self-satisfied proclamation at the start of the film, “I’ve just had sex! Holy shit”, is hardly celebratory (given her age), but all the more shocking given that – within minutes of the film’s opening – it turns out to be with a man named Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), the two-decades-older boyfriend of her mum, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig).

Craving more, she continues her sexual relationship with Monroe, while also courting the attentions of a rich fellow student Ricky (Austin Lyon) and indulging in drug-induced acts of partying and experimentation with her best friend Kimmie (Madeleine Waters) and – belatedly – a streetwise young lesbian named Tabatha (Margarita Levieva).

But while certainly shocking and fairly explicit, Heller’s film doesn’t seek to judge. If anything, it sides with the innocence of its central protagonist, leaving the audience to offer up any resistance or disapproval.

But therein lies the problem. No matter how you attempt to dress it up, or dilute certain scenes with animated flights of fancy (courtesy of Sara Gunnarsdottir), The Diary of a Teenage Girl still concerns itself with an exploitative relationship that hauntingly mirrors real-life.

And while it is undoubtedly one of cinema’s key objectives, to challenge perception and tackle grey issues, this doesn’t necessarily get things right, no matter how strong the performances. For while it does resist the urge to become sordid or even graphic (in the way that a Gaspar Noé film so often is when tackling sensitive issues), this still feels a little too glib for its own good… as if striving for an indie cool that it actually seems to have successfully pulled off.

If anything, the film does serve to show how attitudes to sex on-screen have changed since the days of Lolita. For while that infamous movie was banned by the censors, this passed through barely unnoticed – the biggest debate surrounding it concerning the decision to award it an 18 as opposed to a 15 (so that more teenage girls could see it).

Hence, as notable as the performances in the film are (especially from the fearless Powley, who is undoubtedly someone to watch), or as solid as Heller’s direction is (in the way that it captures the look and mood of an era), The Diary of a Teenage Girl left me torn.

Yes, it tackles a frighteningly real issue – and one that needs more awareness of – by populating it with flesh and blood characters who could pass for everyday people. But at the same time, it feels a tad too cool in the way that it does so. It quite rightly left me feeling uncomfortable but, unlike a lot of reviewers, nowhere near as ready to sing its praises. And that’s surely a sentiment with which any parent of a teenage girl would agree.

Certificate: 18
Running time: 102mins
UK Blu-ray & DVD Release: January 11, 2016