Based on the popular semi-graphic 2002 novel by Phoebe Gloeckner and written and directed by first-timer Marielle Heller, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is the kind of movie that seems a lot more adventuresome than it is. Set in 1976 in bohemian San Francisco, it’s about 15-year-old Minnie (frisky Bel Powley, whose big-eyed doeishness is constantly served up for us in close-up), a teenage high-schooler who lives with her younger sister and single mom, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) and obsesses about sex. Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), her mom’s sexy, 35-year-old layabout boyfriend, soon obliges, and they carry on an affair free of any real guilt or remorse. Inevitably Charlotte finds out, but since this is the '70s and San Francisco, we’re supposed to think it’s all going to come out all right. Maybe it’s even groovy.
The film’s (apparent) novelty – the reason it received raves at Sundance – is most likely because Heller doesn’t take an obviously moralistic approach to this material. Minnie’s sexual longings are intended to be more “real” than what Hollywood has doling out for years. But treating risqué material in this way isn’t a push toward a greater realism. It’s more like a cop-out.
Are we supposed to think that just because Minnie is a budding bohemian, her behavior gets a free pass? Or Monroe’s? Any psychological damage she might face, or cause others, is blithely played down in favor of a free-floating air of pseudohipness. The film seems to be taking place in a neverland where, for example, Monroe goes out for a beer in a bar with the underage Minnie and nobody, least of all the bartender, blinks an eye. The supposedly caring Charlotte seems much more upset by the fact that her daughter stole her boyfriend than she is with how all this will affect Minnie.
It’s not that this material is, or should be, off limits in a movie. But “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” isn’t exactly “Lolita.” Heller must think that taking a moral stance is tantamount to selling out. Commercially, she may be right. In every other respect, she’s wrong. Grade: C (Rated R for strong sexual content including dialogue, graphic nudity, drug use, language and drinking, all involving teens.)