In a WCPN roundtable last week, the Plain Dealer's film critic, Clint O'Connor, remarked that lately he's had to preface many a review with a warning about raunch. The 2015 comedy line-up has been awash in good films (Trainwreck) and bad ones (Get Hard) that push the mainstream boundaries of taste and the MPAA's R-rating.
But talking openly and in explicit detail about (what were once) taboo subjects like fellatio and menstruation is one thing in a comedy. It's quite another in a drama which has at its center the affair between a 15-year-old and her mom's boyfriend.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which opens Friday at the Cedar Lee, is just such a film, and it's uncomfortable. Not only in its graphic nudity and its graphic dialogue and its portrayal of wanton hardcore drug use around and by children, but in the way the film itself seems roughly as invested in the emotional and sexual health of its protagonist as the adult caretakers in the script — that it to say, not all that invested.
Minnie (the doe-eyed Brit Bel Powley) is obsessed with sex in mid-'70s San Francisco. Her descent from virginal schoolgirl to sex-crazed outcast is portrayed not as a descent, but as an experiment rather in keeping with the spirit of Left Coast bohemia. The central conflict, bizarre as it sounds, becomes less about the moral and sexual crime of pedophilia, but much more about infidelity, and this feels off. Minnie's mother (Kristen Wiig) is way more concerned about losing a boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard) than she is about the imperilment of her daughter.
Are we being too prudish? Are we misreading this?
Let us say that the film's look and gloss are superb. It revels in the funky decor and style of the '70s, and even dips successfully into fanciful, often grotesquely sexual cartoons from Minnie's sketchbook and drug-induced visions. The performances, too, are worthy of acclaim. Powley and Skarsgard, in particular, as the doomed, illicit lovers, are a potent and striking combo on screen.
The moral questions, though, which are certainly heavy but which also seem to have simple answers, never feel like they're dealt with in adequate ways. "Let's not talk about this ... ever," seems to be the final coping mechanism. And though debut director Marielle Heller deserves props for the creation of characters with rich, tumultuous interior lives, the film's moral posture — more or less a shrug — strikes this progressive alt-weekly as a weak stance for such gripping and transgressive subject matter.