Bel Powley, the star of Marielle Heller’s merciless The Diary of a Teenage Girl, soaks up 1970s San Francisco with saucer eyes and a hungry mouth. As fifteen-year-old, “born ugly” Minnie, she’s all appetite: She craves attention, love, and sex, however — and from whomever — it’s offered.
Problem is, her nearest paramour is her cocaine-snorting mother’s (Kristen Wiig) 35-year-old boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). The setup smacks of Lolita, but here the fantasies belong to the girl. Minnie, equally knowing and naive, can’t tell the difference between a handsome grown-up and a stunted sad man.
We can, and Heller’s camera shoots Monroe’s halfhearted seductions with icky, erotic electricity. It feels shocking, but shouldn’t: Any woman who survived puberty knows that girlhood is all about obsession — just ask Justin Bieber, One Direction, New Kids on the Block, or the Beatles. Skarsgård is more handsome than the Monroe that Phoebe Gloeckner, the artist behind the semi-autobiographical graphic novel, originally sketched, which shifts the balance from “Why would she?” to “Who wouldn’t?”
Yet Wiig, playing an aging bombshell awkwardly straddling repressive Fifties gender roles and the rotting libertinism of the early Seventies, chips away at her daughter’s insecurities, convincing her and us that a woman’s self-esteem is her sexual attraction. She’s great, but the film’s in the pocket of Powley’s rib-high corduroys from the second she struts onscreen — and long after she takes them off.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Written and directed by Marielle Heller
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens August 7, AMC Loews Lincoln Square and Landmark Sunshine