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Diary of a Teenage Girl, The

Sony Pictures // R // January 19, 2016
List Price: $34.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted January 28, 2016 | E-mail the Author
Note: Although screencaps should only be considered an idea of what the disc looks like, click any capture in this review to expand the image to a full size .png.

Given the fact that women's right to choose is somehow still on the table more than 40 years after Roe vs. Wade, and victims of sexual abuse and rape are questioned over their attackers (even when nearly 50 women accuse the same man), there's no questioning whether or not society is still policing women's sexuality, and no version of women's sexuality could be as touchy a subject than that of teenage girls. Although the horniness of adolescent boys is the subject for thousands of mainstream, even PG-13-rated comedies, the idea that a teenage girl could lust after someone -- especially an older man -- will no doubt prompt pearl-clutching and outrage, even from some liberal feminists. The Diary of a Teenage Girl, by covering this subject, is therefore both a fairly standard coming-of-age comedy/drama and also wildly unprecedented, a molotov cocktail of a movie flung out into the world that will (rightfully) demand attention.

Based on a graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, Diary opens as 15-year-old Minnie Goetz (Bel Powley) has just lost her virginity to her mother's 34-year-old boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). Minnie is a prototypical teenager: worried about her appearance and struggling with self-esteem, thinking about what kind of path she plans on navigating through the "real world", and exploring her sexuality for the first time. In all the ways that Minnie wants to be viewed as an adult -- something all teenagers undoubtedly yearn for -- Monroe is willing to do so, and the emotional rush of that validation, Minnie's first taste of adulthood and and desire, are lovely and overwhelming for her.

Many will balk at that description, because of course Monroe's behavior is unacceptable, even amid the hippie flexibility of the 1970s, but screenwriter / director Marielle Heller isn't interested in Monroe's motivation for the relationship or his responsibility for it. Throughout, she remains dedicated to Minnie's side of the relationship, with any of Monroe's perspective merely creeping in around the edges in the form of distance between what Monroe says or does and how Minnie interprets it. Heller navigates the material (which she adapted into a stage play before turning it into a film) with such ease that it would be easy to miss what a tightrope act it is. The movie must be wistful without awkwardly romanticizing the aspects of Minnie's experience that are inappropriate or becoming consumed by an examination of inappropriate behavior, and it must also avoid chastising Minnie for behaviors and emotions that are part of the normal teenage experience. Minnie also sleeps with other boys (and girls) roughly her own age, something that another teen film might be built around celebrating. Monroe may be different from the perspective of the viewer, but he isn't different to Minnie, and for Heller that's what's important (not to mention, sympathy or empathy are not the same as endorsement).

Speaking of Minnie, Heller has lucked out in finding Bel Powley, without whom it's hard to imagine the movie existing. There is a deep and knowing authenticity to the way she articulates each of Minnie's complex thoughts about her relationship, about her body, about her life, and the people in it. Watching her articulate a thought or experience a feeling is frequently funny and heartfelt, capturing a tone that will allow older and wiser viewers to look back at their own experiences and laugh without making Minnie seem clueless or oblivious. Minnie "narrates" chunks of the story through a series of cassette tapes she starts recording after sleeping with Monroe for the first time. Heller employs these lines, as well as another stylistic device where Minnie's cartoons spring to life, with a careful restraint that gives Powley plenty of room to make her own mark with a glance, a smile, or an awkward pause.

With a premise like this one, there is the sense that some directors would likely limit the amount of sex scenes in the film, making sure to deliver as chaste a version of Minnie's relationship with Monroe as possible. Heller does not shy away -- the film contains graphic nudity and multiple unambiguous scenes of Monroe and Minnie together. Although it is bold, it isn't exploitative but authentic, wisely trashing the unspoken social agreement of movies to sanitize tough subjects, in order to paint a more honest and accurate depiction of the story at hand. It's frustrating that Diary will probably be harshly criticized and even outright condemned by many viewers, and that even if the film is available to young women, their ability to see it will be limited by its restrictive R-rating and the fear that they might emulate the things it depicts -- not because they never would, but because perhaps they already have, and the movie's portrait of a young girl who makes outrageous choices and faces them instead of burying them could be the show of solidarity that helps them through it.

The Blu-ray
The Diary of a Teenage Girl arrives with its theatrical key art intact, featuring Wiig, Powley, and Skarsgard seated together on a couch in front of a very '70s-looking wallpaper. The one-disc release comes with a glossy, non-embossed slipcover featuring the same artwork as the sleeve, and there is a leaflet with the free Digital HD UltraViolet Copy code inside the eco-friendly Vortex Blu-ray case.

The Video and Audio
The look of The Diary of a Teenage Girl often akin to that of a Polaroid photo -- in low-light scenes, there's a slightly subdued, faintly faded aspect to it, as if the image hasn't completely developed. Presented in 2.39:1 1080p AVC, the image is generally sharp but diffuse light softens the details, and contrast seems to be intentionally lowered to take another bit of edge off. Colors have a faded appearance that also appears to be by design, and even when they're more naturally saturated, the decade's natural color palette of yellows and browns can make the movie seem like it has less pop. A strong transfer that leaves nothing to be desired technically but is in service of cinematography that has been carefully designed to avoid current-era slickness.

Sound is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which is mostly centered around dialogue, but nonetheless has its flourishes, mostly subtle techniques by Heller that further place the viewer in Minnie's shoes. During one of the first moments of genuine sexual tension between Monroe and Minnie in a dingy bar, the jukebox briefly fades from the background as both consider the moment they've shared. When Minnie's drawings appear on screen, they are often accompanied by subtle sound effects and shifts in the design that give them a fantastical quality, and there is a crispness to Minnie's cassette recordings (used as voice-over) to dialogue being delivered within the scene. A Portuguese DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, English Audio Description, Parisian French, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish subtitles are all also included.

The Extras
Diary gets a strong line-up of supplements from Sony Classics, starting with an audio commentary with screenwriter / director Marielle Heller and actors Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgard. This is a very anecdotal commentary, one that deals more with the day-to-day details of the shoot rather than the general details of how the project came together. Sometimes Skarsgard asks for clarification on points that Heller has already clarified, but this is a light and entertaining track that contains most of the funny stories from the set and captures the trio's friendly camaraderie.

On the video side, "Marielle's Journey: Bringing the Story to Life" (23:07) gets a little bit more into the details of the making of the film, taking an overview perspective of the production. Although this is arguably more informative than the commentary, some of the same stories are repeated, and there is a bit of a canned EPK stiffness to the piece as a whole. Next, an LA Film Festival Q&A featuring Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgard, and Marielle Heller (25:19), hosted by Jenelle Riley is included, which for the most part has its own unique anecdotes and stories, including a nice lengthy discussion, mostly between Skarsgard and Heller, about Heller's on-set approach to problems and new ideas. Last, but not least, there is one Blu-ray exclusive extra. Although they're labeled as deleted scenes (5:24), they're actually a few odds and ends that don't quite fit into any other category. First is a cute short film by Minnie starring her cat as a Godzilla-like monster trampling a cardboard city. The second is a reel of takes featuring Kristen Wiig during a particularly improvisational moment. Finally, there is one true deleted scene, a fight between Minnie and Kimmie.

Trailers for Irrational Man, Jimmy's Hall, Infinitely Polar Bear, Truth, Grandma, and Labyrinth of Lies play before the main menu. An original theatrical trailer for The Diary of a Teenage Girl is also included.

There is no denying that many who enjoy Diary of a Teenage Girl may still find it tough to watch, that Marielle Heller and her cast follow their heroine into certain deep ends and don't bat an eye. Yet, that unflinching toughness, the details that many will pull back from, those are the elements that truly mark a journey like Minnie's. Highly recommended.

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