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On Screen, 'Diary Of A Teenage Girl' Packs The Punch Of A Good Graphic Novel


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.


BEL POWLEY: (As Minnie) My name is Minnie Goetze. I'm a 15-year-old living San Francisco, Calif., recording this onto a cassette tape because my life has gotten really crazy of late, and I need to tell someone about it. If you're listening to this without my permission, please stop now. Just stop, OK?

GROSS: That's a clip from the new film, "The Diary Of A Teenage Girl," in which the main character, Minnie, is recording an entry in her audio diary. The film is about Minnie's sexual coming-of-age, starting when she loses her virginity to her mother's boyfriend. Minnie is played by newcomer Bel Powley. Kristen Wiig plays her hippie mother. Alexander Skarsgard plays the boyfriend, Monroe. In a few minutes, we'll meet Marielle Heller, who wrote and directed the film. She adapted it from a 2002 semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, who will also join us. First, we have a review of the film by our critic David Edelstein.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: "The Diary Of A Teenage Girl" opens with its title character, 15-year-old Minnie Goetze, walking in a daze through San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in 1976. In her diary, which is spoken into a cassette tape recorder, she says she had sex that day. The act has blown her mind for many reasons, not the least that it was, A, her first time, and, B, with a 35-year-old man who was, C, her mother's boyfriend. But what she has the hardest time of all grasping is that someone would want her. She's never seen herself as attractive or as having any kind of power over anyone. Power is the real theme of "The Diary Of A Teenage Girl," not underage sex, drug use, lesbianism or any of the hot-button issues that give the movie its lurid allure.

Director Marielle Heller's adaptation of the 2002 graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner is the extraordinarily delicate story of how Minnie learns to see herself, first through the eyes of other people, particularly men, and then through her own eyes, her inner voyage mirrored by a growing talent for illustrating her world. Speaking of eyes, the gifted, young, though not actually teenage actress who plays Minnie, Bel Powley, has saucers like I've rarely seen. With her mythic, pop-out, blue orbs, she's halfway to a cartoon already. You watch her, and you watch her watch. And all around her, animation blooms. The movie shows you the world she sees - flowers and birds and jungles in vivid colors against the drab, desaturated San Francisco of the late '70s. Heller's framing doesn't call attention to itself, but with its freestyle cartooning and luminous heroine, the film has the punch of a good graphic novel.

The tall, lean Alexander Skarsgard plays her mother's boyfriend, Monroe, whose first physical contact with Minnie is a hand draped over her chest while they watch TV, then childish pushing and shoving, then something not so casual. Skarsgard is a strong enough actor to show the full dimensions of Monroe's weakness.

As Minnie's mother, Charlotte, Kristen Wiig is a soft presence, unfocused, adrift, like the movie suggests much of San Francisco in the late '70s. On TV, Minnie's family watches "The Trial Of Patricia Hearst," discussing how Hearst's identity could have been so remolded by the group that kidnapped her. In search of her own identity, Minnie finds inspiration in the sexy, funny, good taste-defying work of cartoonist Aline Kominsky, whom she imagines working side by side with her future husband, R. Crumb, and to whom she writes fan letters. Kominsky appears in cartoon form beside Minnie as she walks down the street.


POWLEY: (As Minnie) I feel so awkward and ugly and naive and lonely.

SUSANNAH SCHULMAN: (As Aline) I know how you feel.

POWLEY: (As Minnie) I have no friends. I don't want to go to school ever again. Nobody loves me. Maybe I should kill myself.

SCHULMAN: (As Aline) No, alienation is good for your art.

POWLEY: (As Minnie) Maybe I should paint a picture.

SCHULMAN: (As Aline) Yeah.

POWLEY: (As Minnie) I should paint a picture.

SCHULMAN: (As Aline) It doesn't matter what kind of art you do. Just - you just have to do it.

POWLEY: (As Minnie) I want to discipline myself to draw every day. That's what I have to do, right? I get distracted sometimes, overwhelmed by my all-consuming thoughts about sex and men. I always want to be touched. I don't know what's wrong with me.

SCHULMAN: (As Aline) I don't know either. Maybe you're a nympho (laughter) with your head. Everybody wants to be touched.

EDELSTEIN: It's lucky that Minnie has this vision of Kominsky to talk to because apart from her likably nerdy little sister, Gretel, played by Abby Wait, everyone in her life focuses on Minnie's increasingly sexualized body. Monroe tells her that her body gives her more power than she knows. So does her mother, even while admitting that it runs against her own feminism to tell her daughter to start wearing makeup and skirts and use her sexuality. Minnie sees the heads of cute boys turning her way in class. She sees the head of a cute girl turning her way at a druggie party. What's brilliant about "The Diary Of A Teenage Girl" is the way it takes that view of Minnie's so-called power and shows how it weakens her, makes her dependent on others. In its quiet, unsensational way, the movie is a radical revision. We finally see Minnie as she learns to see herself.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.