'Diary of a Teenage Girl' aims for a coming-of-age rarity

Diary of a Teenage Girl tells a frank coming of age story from a girl's perspective

The coming-of-age movie is a genre as common as movie-theater popcorn. But there have always been some important qualifiers.

For one thing, a good number of them are of the PG variety that deal only cursorily, if at all, with hormonal and other adult-minded‎ changes young people go through. Maybe more important, the overwhelming majority of these films are about and aimed at boys. Think of the best ones-- "Stand By Me," "Almost Famous,” “Dead Poets Society." There’s almost always a Y chromosome at the center. The best coming-of-age movie in recent memory was even called “Boyhood."

That’s a pretty striking imbalance, and it’s what "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" aims to address. Marielle Heller’s debut, which you may recall created a stir at Sundance, examines a 15-year-old (Bel Powley) growing up with a single mom (Kristen Wiig) in a free-love 1970s San Francisco household. The movie is frank about said teenage girl’s sexuality as it focuses on her ongoing affair with said mom’s 35-year-old boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard)  It’s based on a graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, who in turn based (some of) it on her own upbringing.

On Wednesday night, the film opened the New Directors/New Films festival here, beginning its post-Sundance commercial roll-out at the MoMA-Lincoln Center event. Second viewings proved that first impressions weren’t wrong. “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is a strong piece of cinema, human but unsentimental, stylish but not self-conscious. Its potentially shocking premise  (and graphic scenes) are handled with understatement, and its somewhat fantastical circumstance still manages to be universal. The sex may get some of the headlines, but it's the movie's emotional vibrations that matter.

There’s a broader cultural point at stake than just the quality of the film—namely, the fact that it aims to tackle a coming-of-age story from a girl’s perspective in the first place. “I remember thinking, ‘I bet this is how dudes felt when they read "Catcher In the Rye,"'” Heller said at the screening Wednesday night. “I’d found my Holden Caulfield.”

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Heller apparently made that comparison in her pitch to distributors, and it was enough to lure a few of them to it even before the movie screened.

Sony Pictures Classics will release "Diary" this summer as a “Boyhood”-style counterprogrammer, hoping to capture some of that film's mojo. The company will make the “’Catcher in the Rye' for girls” a key part of the positioning. (There are a few other parallels that come to mind--"An Education,” though even that film fits more neatly in a British prestige bucket than this does. “Ghost World,” with its look at female sexuality and some graphic-novel flourishes to boot, is probably the best comparison,)

Can "Diary" attract a young female audience? Getting teenagers to see an art house movie is never easy, which means “Diary” may face challenges attracting the very people it most addresses (not unlike “Catcher in the Rye,” which at first was read mainly by adults). Still, reviews will be strong, and I suspect that teenagers who do come to it will see a movie that speaks to them and tell their friends. Some teenage boys may see it too, hoping for some opposition research.

After years of movies with girls in soapy love triangles or dealing with concerns in a heightened and clunky genre way, what the movie world needs is a film like this--a frank coming-of-age story that tells in all its vulnerability and confidence how a character sees the world. Something, in other words, that isn’t phony.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT.

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