This afternoon was my first full day at Sydney Film Festival this year. After an early-morning interview and a screening of Kris Swanberg’s Unexpected, I saw The Diary of a Teenage Girl. It was a last minute decision – I was originally going to see Villa Touma, but managed to hunt down a screener so switched screenings. I went into the film with essentially no prior knowledge – I knew it played Sundance, I knew Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgård were in it, it was directed by a woman (Marielle Heller), presumably it was about a teenage girl.
Well, ten minutes into the film I was convinced I was going to love it. The opening line: “I had sex today. Hol-eee shit.” Dwight Twilley Band’s “Looking for the Magic” kicked in. (I confess, dear diary, I had to look up the title. It’s that song from You’re Next, though it took me pretty much the entirety of the film to remember that’s where I knew it from.) The film was funny and vibrant and confronting – we backtrack a little to learn that that teenage girl (named Minnie, played by Bel Powley, who’s twenty-something but looks convincingly fifteen) had sex with her mother’s boyfriend (the mother –Wiig, the boyfriend – Skarsgård). It was such a Sundance film – interspersed with Aline Kominsky/Robert Crumb-esque excursions into animation, over-exposed smoky cinematography, wry narration – but that’s not really a dirty word in my book. It reminded me a little of White Bird in a Blizzard, a little of Beginners, a little of Submarine (I only really like one of those films, but bear with me here).
An hour later I wasn’t as sure. An hour of Minnie having lots of sex, doing lots of drugs, following the sexual-awakening-arc with dogged consistency. The film began to feel tired, bloated. Or, I dunno, maybe I was feeling tired and bloated after a restless night’s sleep (I certainly almost nodded off a couple times). My first ‘critical reaction’ (ugh, I know) was that the homogeneity of The Diary of the Teenage Girl was its downfall, dragging it towards a series of increasingly-indistinguishable sordid encounters – bathroom blowjobs, drug deals, that sorta thing – that fell somewhere between the first part of Nymphomanic and Young & Beautiful. But, I dunno. I don’t think that’s it.
The problem, dear diary, is the film’s relentless solipsism. Look, no question – Bel Powley is a revelation in this film. She’s fantastic, and I hope that the Sydney Film Fest program’s characterisation of her performance as “star-making” proves prophetic. But she’s so aggressively the centre of attention – and so aggressively self-obsessed (understandable for a teenager) – that we never really come to understand anyone in her circle. The only other person we come to understand is her mum’s lover, who’s basically an irredeemable dirtbag. Skarsgård is a convincing dirtbag, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that makes for an interesting character! Wiig’s role as Millie’s mum is rendered with unfortunate opacity, we learn nothing of Millie’s younger sister, and the sequence of men in Millie’s life – her mother’s ex-husband (a hilarious but broadly-drawn Christopher Meloni), the series of dudes she fucks – never hang around long enough to accumulate any characterisation.
So I didn’t love The Diary of the Teenage Girl, I’m afraid. I’ve seen better and worse films at the festival. I still liked it – there’s that whole Bel Powley thing I mentioned, plus it’s often crudely charming in its hand-made aesthetic – but the film promised by those first ten minutes – something fresh and funny and authentic – never quite eventuated.
Saturday 6th June, 2015