Review: 'Diary of a Teenage Girl'

'Diary of a Teenage Girl' tells the tale of a particularly complicated relationship
TANGLED TRIANGLE: In 'Diary of a Teenage Girl,' Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard) is sleeping with Minnie (Bel Powley), the daughter of his girlfriend, Charlotte (Kristin Wiig).

Asked how anyone could ever make a movie of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov said, "Let them hire a dwarfess." For the evocative if sweetened adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner's semi-autobiographical book, Diary of a Teenage Girl, director Marielle Heller cast the British actress Bel Powley. Powley, 23, plays Gloeckner's 15-year-old heroine, Minnie Goetz. She's of small stature, all fluffy hair and big yearning eyes. She's rounded and fragile, but childishly rambunctious as she stands on a hassock or bounces on a bed to admire the details of her room.

Minnie's first lover is her mother's boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). He's a perfect representative of this time (1975 or so) and place (San Francisco), when the fanciest men were not expected to do all that much, either in the realm of work or in love. The first-person point of view belongs to Minnie, even though all the power in her first sexual relationship is held by Monroe.

It's scandalous material, but Heller takes the sensationalism out of this not untypical memoir of the way the adult/teenager barrier was breached in the 1970s. Maybe the outrage is thin, because there's a long cinematic history of such stories, from Bonjour Tristesse to Beau Pere to Wish You Were Here. Gloeckner—a memoirist and cartoonist of great merit—has been busy in interviews, having to explain that the scandal isn't in the statutory rape of an avid-for-experience 15-year-old girl by her mother's boyfriend (20 years older, yet very immature for his age). The artist and writer has been stressing that the real shame of Minnie's experience was in the way the liaison broke up the trust between daughter and mother.

Minnie's laissez-faire, very '70s mom, Charlotte (as in Charlotte Haze, Lolita's mother?), is played by Kristin Wiig—proving once again why she's one of the most important actresses working today. When the cat is finally out of the bag, Wiig interprets this betrayal in terms of a mother's traditional outraged decency, demanding that the scoundrel marry her daughter.

Skarsgaard is excellent—playing a man quite unaware of what's going on in Minnie's head, and only truly concerned with not getting caught. His Monroe is a weakling of a guy who lets things happen to him. He tries to wrap himself in strength by becoming another sucker for the "human potential movement" est trainings. This doesn't make his resolve any firmer when Minnie suggests that the opportunistic sexual fling they have between them is a real romance: "I think we should talk about our relationship," she tells him.

In drawings and photographs, Gloeckner has a penetrating gaze (one of her comics had the unapologetic title "On Being Too Intense"). Powley is brave and unselfconscious—it's a winning performance—but even if she imagines herself as a cartoon firebird in one of the film's animated sequences, Powley is kind of a downy bird. In drawings and photos, Gloeckner looks more like a raptor.

Gloeckner's survived the entire debacle with the help of a mentor—as we see here, she had some correspondence and a lot of imaginary conversation with cartoonist Aline Kominsky. It's good to see Kominsky getting her due as one of the very first autobiographical cartoonists, to say nothing of being one of the first women to write about her sexual experiences in cartoon form.

This film version of Diary is episodic—it doesn't have much shape. But this movie gets Gloeckner's invaluable point of view to the mass audience. The '70s decor of funky Victoriana is caught completely, from the jungle of ferns making a lagoon out of a clawfoot bathtub, to the scarfs dangled over the living room lamp, so that the light doesn't hurt dissipated eyes. Anyone who dawdled through that dangerous time, and that dangerous age, will see a reflection of their own experiences. They'll remember things they swore they'd never forget, and somehow did.

Diary of a Teenage Girl

R; 102 Mins.

Find Movie Theaters & Showtimes

Zip Code or City:   Radius: Theaters: