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Small(er) Movie Roundup: A Pair of Movies More Fantastic Than You-Know-Who

Sick of comic book movies? Try this smart coming-of-age-drama and sly horror flick on for size.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl, directed by Marielle Heller

There’s a lot about this movie that’s stock-familiar. It’s set in San Francisco in the 1970s (’76 to be precise) and the protagonist — an aspiring artist named Minnie (Bel Powley) — has lost her virginity by the first scene and will spend a lot of the movie chasing a boy. Her mother (Kristen Wiig) is one of those anything-goes types — single and sensual and druggy and off. Except, here are Minnie’s first words to us, courtesy of the audio diary she’s just started keeping: “I just had sex. Holy. Shit.” And the mother, Charlotte, isn’t so high that she’s a terrible mother, she’s just permissive and absent enough to miss for a long while that the guy Minnie is chasing is Charlotte’s adult boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), who appears to have fallen in love with her daughter.

This is not a Lifetime movie. It’s a comedy — based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel — and Heller gets far inside Minnie’s psyche. You’re watching a girl figure sex out (Monroe’s not the only man she conquers) but without any of the moralizing judgment that’s typical of these films. It begins as a movie about sex and the way it can empower girls. But Heller picks up on the strength of Gloeckner’s book and weds Minnie’s sexuality with her obsession with art, namely the oleaginous grotesquerie of Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s underground comics. Aline always seemed like Lee Krasner to her husband Robert’s Jackson Pollock. But Heller and Gloeckner reassert Aline as a crucial landmark. The animated flowers and cute stuff that early on dance around Minnie in her bedroom eventually become poignant cartoons in which Minnie is a giantess. But it’s not fear that brings her to Aline. It’s sexual liberation. It’s recognition of herself in the drawings’ off-kilter power.

A lot of what’s initially funny comes from Powley, who’s a Brit in her early twenties. These sexual-awakening parts tend to suck the life out of actresses. It’s like they’re steeling themselves for eroticism — and you see the results and can’t blame them. But Heller’s empathy and, let’s be honest, her denial of prurience appears to free Powley from embarrassment. She’s seizing this part, not shrinking from it. Her face and eyes have appealing roundness. She looks like a cartoon of determination. Her voice has the breathy authority to give a ’70s-era line like, “Because he knows how it goes, and I don’t,” as much go-with-the-flow wisdom as an adolescent can have. But eventually Powley also has to put across the complicated, womanly stuff born of emotional intelligence — and she does. There’s a great moment in which something clicks in Minnie that changes her perception of the affair, and Powley gives it the sophisticated split-level awareness of a girl having an adult epiphany.

By the end, she’s doing the carnival strength test, swinging too hard for the pin to ding the bell. There’s a dark detour into drugs (and worse) that the movie feels only partially sure of. But this is Heller’s first film, and she’s a real director, if not of space then of people, situations, and mood. Wiig and Skarsgård do deep, layered stuff with foolish characters that keeps you from laughing at them. It’s as if Heller said play the era but without making caricatures. It’s the little things about this movie that got me, like when, in a lustful fit, Minnie and her best friend (Madeleine Waters) lick the crotch of an Iggy Pop poster. Later, Minnie and a friend service two strangers by pretending to be prostitutes. This is during the movie’s uncertain dark phase, but Heller includes a shot of the girls’ clasping hands. That feels certain. This is what happens, I think, when women reexamine an era.

This film feels of a piece with the recent quiet reappraisal of adolescent girls and their treatment by older men. The critic Karina Longworth devoted a string of episodes of her Hollywood-history podcast, You Must Remember This, to the women of the Manson murders, and Jason Cherkis reported extensively on the Runaways’ ravaging by the manager and human dorsal fin Kim Fowley. Even something like the botched second season of True Detective suggests something’s in the air. Normally, American movies about girls and sex tend to be cautionary. You have to leave the country to witness sexuality that matures a woman as opposed to wrecks her. (Lucrecia Martel’s The Holy Girl, from Argentina, is a superior cousin to Heller’s movie.) But maybe there’s something in the explicitness of the graphic novel that makes it land better over here. Alison Bechdel’s graphic-novel memoir, Fun Home, turned into a Broadway musical that was foremost about a girl coming into her lesbianism. They’re ultimately both positive about sex, illustrations of sexuality on the one hand but instructive blueprints on the other.

The GiftSTX Entertainment

The Gift, directed by Joel Edgerton

Finally, someone who gets that Jason Bateman’s best mode is as an asshole; he never even bothers to put it beneath the surface of most of his acting. For Bad Words, his first time out as a director, he cast himself as an adult who hijacks the National Spelling Bee by participating in it. It’s the most obnoxious movie I’ve seen in five years. This is to say that Bateman doesn’t care about modulation. He likes this smug, douche-y persona he’s made for himself. And now the Australian actor Edgerton has built a good psychological thriller around it. Edgerton wrote this movie, too, and has cast himself as an American creep who won’t stop badgering Bateman’s corporate suit, Simon, and Robyn, Simon’s nervous wife (Rebecca Hall). The “why” is worth waiting for.

The creep — he’s got a Walter White goatee and everybody calls him Gordo — went to high school with Simon, and happens to run into the couple in a store not long after they’ve relocated to Southern California from Chicago for “a new start.” She was stressed, had a miscarriage, then suffered shaky mental health. Simon’s kind of put off by this guy. But Robyn thinks his leaving presents on their doorstep and random drop-ins are nice. His awkwardness appeals to hers. That’s a wonderful touch that the movie doesn’t overdo. Hall is the sort of actor who can make that kind of identification resonate. They spend time talking about Gordo to friends (Allison Tolman, Adam Lazarre-White, Tim Griffin, and Busy Philipps) who hear he’s invited them to dinner and more or less say, Dont go in there. Needless to say: They go. And something strange happens. Then something else. Then the dog goes missing. Then Robyn starts digging around in the past.

Officially, this is a blank-from-hell movie. But Edgerton has remixed the formula. It’s unclear what category the blank is or who’s occupying it. Not metaphysically, but character-wise. Gordo wants to talk about the past and Simon has no idea what Gordo means. And because the first two-thirds are told from Robyn’s point of view, you’re as intrigued by these two as she is. When the movie shifts to Simon’s, it feels like a narrative contrivance. And yet the shift lets the film get into its ideas about moral reparation and bygones and evading the past. No matter how insinuating, criminally evasive, and sociopathic Gordo is, Simon seems worse. But he doesn’t care. He’s proud of his what a dick he is. The character somehow manages to scratch an itch you might have for Trump-level disses and tirades. He can justify any offense. These are designed to send Gordo further over the edge. Simon speaks the language of any person who presumes himself to be entitled to do anything and have everything. What Edgerton does with that entitlement is apply uncannily satisfying restraint. His simple blank-from-hell movie culminates in what feels like allegory (that’s the only way most of the behavior here makes sense). Everything is up for grabs, not just who’s the blank — but what, under these circumstances, is a fitting definition of “hell.”