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Diary of a Teenage Girl and No Escape




DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL. My wife accompanied me to this one, both because she thought she might enjoy it and because I thought her presence might temper my cynicism. Wrong on both counts; she liked it even less than I did and my cynicism was left unfettered. Leaving the theater, she said, "Ugh, so indulgent," and she was, of course, not wrong. That this is true and that I agree with it need not suggest that there is nothing to like in Diary, but it is pitched in such a narrow, selfishly faux-brazen register that it might easily alienate potential supporters.

Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley), 15 years old in the heart of arch-Bohemian 1976 San Francisco, realizes one day that she is sexually fascinated. Becoming increasingly obsessed with her nearly insatiable libido, she positions herself strategically to attract the attentions of her mother's 35-year-old boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). They carry on a secret, protracted affair while Minnie also tests the waters with boys her own age. In her off hours, she makes drawings and comics, and gets into trouble with her friend Kimmie (Madeline Waters). At home, she skirts the borders of mom Charlotte's (Kristen Wiig) gin-in-the-afternoon, cocaine-at-supper lifestyle and feuds with her nerdy little sister Gretel (Abby Wait). Once in a while, their emotionally and geographically distant ex-stepfather Pascal (Christopher Meloni) saunters back into their lives to dispense some platitudes. Eventually, Minnie's free-wheelin' behavior foments some dark times for her, but she's able to extricate herself before things get too risky.

The movie struggles to find a balance between family drama, sex-centric coming of age story, postcard to a shaggy, bygone city and an artist's journey. The fundamental problem is that Minnie must be the center of the story, the unifier among all the disparate elements, but there just isn't enough to her as a character to pull it off. Powley gives a fine performance, dressed down with heavy bangs, T-shirts and chunky shoes to downplay her natural prettiness. She is open and wide-eyed and emotive and has a particularly entertaining way with curse words. But Minnie, as she appears on screen and, I must assume, on the page, doesn't ring true. There are authentic elements in the character — her on-again-off-again low self-esteem, her burgeoning understanding of her ability to manipulate men undercut by her simultaneous, often unbidden need for them — but they present more as parts of a construct than aspects of a real personality. The Minnie we get to know is more a shade-persona defined by sexuality than she is an adolescent coming to terms with it.

From a practical/aesthetic perspective, I am also frustrated by writer-director Marielle Heller's (she adapted Phoebe Gloeckner's graphic novel) insistence on setting her movie when and where she does. I can understand the appeal of California in the 1970s, but the fact that the characters all live in a world with hipper, more relaxed rules allows Heller to sidestep one of the primary problems of the screenplay: a 35-year-old man maintaining a sexual relationship with his girlfriend's admittedly precocious 15-year-old daughter. I don't expect the movie to condemn or condone, necessarily, but the setting provides an easy out, letting it slide on the "far-out-man" attitudes of most of the characters. I appreciate that Heller isn't trying to shock us, but playing it this low key feels like a cop-out, as if it should be our responsibility, as the audience, to be hip enough to deal with it. PG13. 98m.

NO ESCAPE. Fortunately, this has nothing to do with the 1994 Ray Liotta vehicle (which I only remember fondly because my then 11-year-old brother referred to it as "pure dreck").

Jack and Annie Dwyer (Owen Wilson, Lake Bell) have pulled up stakes in Austin following the failure of Jack's company. He has taken an engineering job with a multi-national concern, ostensibly bringing clean drinking water to an unnamed Southeast Asian nation where the Dwyers will be making their new home. Unbeknownst to the family Dwyer, a violent overthrow of the government has begun, coinciding perfectly with their arrival. With no time to prepare, they are forced to gather up their two young daughters and run for their lives.

The leads, both seasoned comedic actors, play against type here, emphasizing the regular-person-ness of their characters in a scenario that allows zero room for laughter. Writer/director John Erick Dowdle re-teams with writer/producer brother Drew, following the questionable successes of Quarantine (2008) and As Above So Below (2014). The brothers bring their horror-tilting sensibility to bear here, but expand it into a terrifying, potentially true to life situation. There are moments of striking style and originality here, and the cast does enjoyable work (especially Pierce Brosnan, as a hard-partying ex-pat who turns up at all the right times), but, overall, No Escape lacks the intended intensity. The end result is better than one might expect, but not particularly memorable. R. 103m.

John J. Bennett


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Jennifer Fumiko Cahill


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