There has been a recent surge in appreciation and recognition of that rare and elusive creative force: the female film director. Whether this is due to a brighter light being cast on feminism in general, or perhaps the amassment of collective guilt and unease at the lack of female directors in the industry/Best Director category finally boiling over and being scrutinized, it is certainly something to be celebrated and encouraged, because the more female directors are paid attention to, the more we get to go and watch films like The Diary of a Teenage Girl, the ravishing debut of writer-director Marielle Heller, adapted from the Phoebe Gloeckner novel of the same name.
The film’s plucky 15-year-old protagonist, Minnie (Bel Powley), is an artist, and an avid explorer of her new and scary burgeoning sexuality, growing up in the beige-tinted boundary-transgressing landscape of San Francisco in the 1970s. She’s confused, emotional, and uncontrollably love-struck. Females watching the film will especially relate, and we subsequently find ourselves nostalgically thrown into the platform shoes of Minnie’s teenage predicaments. Heller expertly casts insight into this character’s haywire life and sometimes cringe-inducing difficulties with ease; if less care was taken in the film’s direction, or if Powley’s performance was a shade kookier, Minnie could’ve ended up being quite annoying, but instead we are empathizing with, and rooting for her from the get-go.
Minnie’s mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) is a wild, experimental force of a character, and Wiig’s performance is one of the best things about the film, dominating every scene she is in. A less daring actress would have simply played the role for laughs, especially in the wake of Wiig’s Bridesmaids success, and she could have just given the audience what they expected (a stand-out scene where she pines for her younger years at the kitchen table stands out in particular as one that could’ve easily been more ‘comedic’ in its tone). But there is so much more strength in the subtle steeliness of Wiig’s character, which is balanced by a palpable love for her children and deep affinity with her daughter. She gives off the aura of an experienced, accomplished woman who is completely at ease in her own skin, yet she does this while making mistakes, getting jealous, and being human.
Her jealousy is directed at Minnie, who has started a conspicuous love affair with Charlotte’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). Perhaps what makes this film ‘feminist’ is the equality in its portrayals of both genders; it would’ve been easy to make the men in the film (the central love interest in particular) stereotypical, one dimensional ‘bad guys’ who are just there to cause hurt to the female characters. The story’s message and tone, whilst female in its perspective, doesn’t fall into the trap of suggesting that ‘girls are better than boys’ or making the female characters out to be superior in any way (even Minnie’s empowerment in her superb closing line echoes her father’s guidance). Instead, it feels as though the men are as multi-faceted as the director can make them without pulling focus from the protagonist. Monroe falls in love with Minnie as equally as she falls for him, and he is the one who ends up getting hurt, and learning a harsh lesson in love. He’s as immature and unprepared for love as she is, with both characters just following their hearts.
The animation which weaves its way through a handful of the scenes compliments the radical, hallucinogenic setting of the film and swims along with the progression of Minnie’s wild journey. Minnie’s pursuit of becoming an artist could be viewed as a metaphor for women’s pursuit of making themselves heard in the male-dominated film industry. Monroe looks at Minnie’s drawings unfavourably, telling her they will ‘weird people out’ if she tries to sell them. The boldness of this movie maybe will ‘weird’ some people out, even squirm a bit in their seats…but the warmth and honesty at its core is worth the trip, and comes as a breath of fresh (feminine) air.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is in cinemas now.