Review: Newcomer Bel Powley is magnificent in the wondrous ‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’

PARK CITY – The Sundance Film Festival has transformed the careers of many actors over the years. Parker Posey, Mo'Nique, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jesse Eisenberg, Miles Teller, Amy Adams and Vera Farminga are just a few who had their lives changed after a phenomenal performance shook the festival faithful. Today, another name should be added to that list: Bel Powley. The 22-year-old Brit has her coming out party in Marielle Heller's directorial debut, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” which premiered Saturday at the 2015 edition of the festival.

Based on Phoebe Cloeckner's 2002 novel “The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures,” the coming-of-age drama centers on Minnie (Powley), a young woman coming of age in the liberated environs of 1970s San Francisco. And from the opening shot we learn that there is one thing on Minnie's mind: sex. Living with her somewhat “loose” mom Charlotte (a fantastic Kristen Wiig) and younger sister Gretel (Abby Wait), Minnie is a fledgling cartoonist who has a very funny perspective on life and love during her teenage years. Early on we also learn she has something of a crush on her mother's boyfriend Monroe (a wonderfully engaged Alexander Skarsgård). After accompanying him out on the town one evening (at her mom's suggestion, no less), she professes her desire to have him bang her. Before you know it the duo are engaged in a secret affair, which finds Minnie increasingly attached to a man who realizes this is something he really shouldn't be doing (even in this freewheeling age). This experience opens a new door for Minnie, however, and she begins to explore her sexuality in some ways you'd expect (she hooks up with the good looking rich kid from school) and others you wouldn't (she and her best friend pretend to be hookers and suck off two guys in a bar bathroom for money). This is clearly not after-school special material.

What's so refreshing about “Diary” isn't necessarily the storyline or its “shocking” moments. The film's tone and use of humor pretty much tells us that Minnie is going to grow from these events and learn some lessons along the way. What makes “Diary” transcend the genre is the combination of Heller's inspired vision and some truly standout performances. With a slight nod to “American Splendor” (noted cartoonist Aline Kominsky is part of a minor storyline), Heller uses animation in Cloeckner's own style to highlight Minnie's emotions and imagination. It's often lyrical, funny and just plain beautiful.

The other reason “Diary” is so special is Powley's transformative work. In the wrong hands Minnie could have come across as manipulative or grating. Instead, even though she's going down avenues that would be shocking for many of us, we root for her. We want Minnie to come to her own conclusions about Monroe and how much experimenting is too much experimenting. We want her to become empowered as an artist and to have a real relationship with her mother. For all of Heller's impressive direction, she could have delivered something soulless without Powley's contributions.  

And, once again, Sundance delivers a star upon the world.

Other Sundance reviews:
“Summer of Sangaile”
“The Bronze”
“The End of the Tour”
“Stockholm, Pennsylvania”
“The D Train”
“Z for Zachariah”
“True Story”