A review of Marielle Heller’s captivating debut film, starring Bel Powley and Kristen Wiig. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

Share story

Writer/director Marielle Heller, in her captivating debut film “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” hits exactly the right tone for a complicated balancing act, and for a film that could very easily have gone wrong. At the center of her story — based on a graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner — is Minnie (Bel Powley), a teen in 1976 San Francisco who happily enters into a sexual relationship with her mother’s 30-something boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard).

“I think this makes me officially an adult,” Minnie tells a friend; confident, yet immediately reverting to teen uncertainty. “Right?”

It is, of course, a terrible decision for everyone involved — but what’s fascinating about this film is not how a bad decision destroys Minnie, but how she survives it and emerges not quite officially an adult but older and stronger. This is a rare film about a young woman’s coming of age, in which she stumbles and blunders and generally behaves like the hormone-crazed, romance-fueled teenager that she is.

Movie Review ★★★½  

‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl,’ with Bel Powley, Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgard, Christopher Meloni. Written and directed by Marielle Heller, based on the book by Phoebe Gloeckner. 101 minutes. Rated R for strong sexual content including dialogue, graphic nudity, drug use, language and drinking — all involving teens. Several theaters.

Minnie’s no role model, but it’s not as if she has someone to emulate: Her single mother Charlotte (an excellent Kristen Wiig) is lost in a haze of drugs and self-absorption. And yet, you see in Minnie, through Powley’s unsettling but wondrous performance, the creative, quirky grown-up that she’ll one day be.

Heller demonstrates not only an uncanny hand with casting (Powley, a Brit in her early 20s, is note-perfect as an American in her midteens), but a visual imagination that makes you eager to see more of her work. Minnie, who keeps a diary with drawings, dreams of becoming a graphic novelist one day.

Her reflective scenes are often embellished with on-screen doodles of flowers, hearts and birds; and drawings of her idol, a woman cartoonist, tramp purposefully through the San Francisco of Minnie’s daydreams as a sort of superhero godmother.

“Diary of a Teenage Girl” leaves its audience troubled, moved (Minnie notes that she feels “like there are little weights hanging from my heart, that sway”) and ultimately enchanted to have spent time in the presence of this character. “This is for all the girls,” Minnie writes in her brutally honest diary, at the end, “when they have grown.”