The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a film full of first times. Set in San Francisco in 1976, it begins with fifteen-year-old narrator Minnie Goetz announcing with pride and wonderment that she has just had lost her virginity…to her mother’s boyfriend Monroe. Their affair, which goes on for what seems to be the next several months, begins innocently enough: sitting on the couch in front of the TV, Monroe puts his arm around Minnie and his hand lands on her breast. It’s not made clear whether this is an accident or a calculated move on Monroe’s part. Either way, it serves to kickstart Minnie’s raging hormones. She finds herself obsessed with thoughts of Monroe, onto whom she impulsively projects her desires for sexual pleasure, love, and attention. When she finally propositions Monroe and he complies, she explains in voice-over that she wanted to seize the opportunity to lose her virginity because she wasn’t sure she would ever get another one.
The film itself is a first-time effort for both writer-director Marielle Heller and star Bel Powley, a 23-year-old English actor whose efforts to channel the raw emotions of an American teenager eight years her junior are astonishing. (It helps that she stands almost two feet shorter than Alexander Skarsgard’s Monroe and has the chubby cheeks and pop-eyed stare of a child.) Working from a deft, punchy screenplay adapted by Heller from an illustrated novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, Powley gives voice to Minnie’s sexual curiosity (she worries about the size of her breasts, tries to imagine her classmates’ penises, and wonders if she might be a nymphomaniac) and her budding interest in art (she draws inspiration from the underground comics of Aline Kominsky; this is 1970s San Francisco, remember) with an unflinching candidness.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is more or less single-handedly powered by Powley’s beautifully naturalistic performance, which is perhaps the most formidable breakthrough by a female actor since Carey Mulligan in An Education. She is capably supported by Skarsgard, whose turn as the rakish Monroe makes for a twisted variation on his performance as a protective foster dad in What Maisie Knew, and Kristen Wiig as Minnie’s mother, an easily distracted flake who uses the rhetoric of women’s lib to justify her bad life decisions. The movie belongs to Powley, though. Take her out of the equation and you’re left with a well made but somewhat slight coming-of-age drama dressed up with some whimsical flourishes. (Minnie’s doodles occasionally intrude upon the screen itself, so that the film has the feel of an animated sketchbook—an effect similar to that used in the Harvey Pekar biopic American Splendor.) I commend Heller and her actors for the maturity with which they’ve handled this material, but I wish they had been able to do more with it. In the end, the film made me feel the way Minnie feels about sex: consistently entertained but never completely satisfied.