‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’ is a terrific coming-of-age story

It is 1976, the year of harvest gold and avocado green wallpaper and cowl-neck sweaters as massive and ever-present as the TV coverage of the Patty Hearst abduction. Minnie Goetze, a San Francisco 15-year-old portrayed by the remarkable British actress Bel Powley, sits on a sofa next to the boyfriend of her mother (note-perfect Kristen Wiig), a party girl foremost and nominal, occasional mother secondarily.

We hear Minnie’s thoughts on the soundtrack. She wonders if Monroe, the boyfriend played with a shrewd mixture of geniality and calculation by Alexander Skarsgard, has lightly brushed her breast with his forearm by accident, or not. Minnie’s heart races. Her thoughts are driven by sex and the known unknowns, and losing her virginity, and what lies in store for her.

Monroe (predator? pedophile? a weasel, certainly) becomes Minnie’s lover early in the tumultuous, alarming and often alarmingly funny events of the new film “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.” Minnie’s libido sets the tone for the movie; both are charged with serious, unpredictable, vibrantly observant energy.

As a culture we prefer our painful coming-of-age stories relatively painless. Sex sells, but in the movies it’s usually selling some sort of lie, either seductive or soothing, and with depressing regularity it’s all about the boys chasing after variously objectified body parts attached to women. Movies concerned with the life, the mind, the body and the dawning self-respect of a 15-year-old girl running every sort of risk … these are rare. “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is one of them, and it’s terrific.

It’s also a formidable feature film debut from writer-director Marielle Heller, adapting Phoebe Gloeckner’s unflinching graphic novel/comix/diary hybrid published in 2002. In the book Gloeckner’s alter ego, Minnie, car-crashed her way through even more encounters than the film accommodates in its barreling 101 minutes. Heller’s adaptation sands down a few edges. But only a few. The way she writes and directs Minnie’s story, the sex and nudity and drugs are there, unapologetically, with a disarming lack of what actors call “indicating.”

Every performance is good and true, but the movie truly needed a spectacular Minnie, which it got. Powley was 21 at the time of filming, but she’s a wholly convincing young teen, whose passions are multidirectional and consuming. Every feeling is heightened; each new round of intercourse with Monroe, or bull session with her best friend (Madeleine Waters), is either an expression of her desires or a respite from the confusion of her life. The film is harsh, but wonderful. It shouldn’t be funny, too, but somehow it is, and somehow it’s the right kind of funny.

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