What a fine film this is. The Diary Of A Teenage Girl smartly recreates the hippy hangover San Francisco of the 1970s through its costume, decor, hazy amber filter and an aesthetic that leans heavily on the underground comics of Aline Kominsky-Crumb (and, by association, her husband Robert … in addition to its own graphic novel origins). It also highlights just how plain, plodding and boring most coming-of-age stories are. The focus isn’t on teenage boys, for starters, and thankfully Marielle Heller’s debut also eschews the tired device of using something (loss of virginity, getting drunk or stoned, etc) as a kind of Holy Grail to drive the plot forward. It certainly feels like a rare treat to watch a film about teenage change that is written by someone who (a) recognises the burgeoning maturity of their young protagonist, who (b) sees that change as a gradual, mental thing rather than the instant, overnight switch to adulthood bestowed upon cherry-losing teens by lesser writers and who (c) can also still see the comic potential in erections and the like (though I don’t want to give the wrong impression: this is a serious film with funny moments, rather than the other way round). If the title puts you off or suggests a certain type of movie to you then rest assured this is not that movie.
The film opens with 15-year-old Minnie Goetze (British actress Bel Powley in a career-igniting turn) strutting confidently through a park, confiding (in voiceover to a tape recorder, but also to the audience) that she has just had sex for the first time; and thus the coming-of-age baggage is instantly shed by an opening line. It transpires that the man in question is Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), who is in his mid-30s and also happens to be the current partner of Minnie’s bohemian mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig). We are, of course, talking about sex with a minor, but the film – written by Heller and based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures – never gets bogged down with questions of moral turpitude (and doesn’t sweep them away under the rug, either). Along similar lines we see the way in which Charlotte’s hard-partying lifestyle – the living room is for TV during the day but booze, coke and weed dominate at night – impacts on Minnie and her younger sister Gretel (Abigail Wait), but Heller’s approach is generally non-judgmental and she appears to be less interested in condemning the behaviour of the adult characters than we have come to expect from mainstream directors, even if she does reveal their immaturity. The way the adults behave in this film is often startling, even within the free-spirited, beatnik coccoon they have created, but it’s rare to feel such a lightness of touch from a director in terms of their influence on your own judgment. Monroe is never arrested (at least, not for having sex with Minnie) and Charlotte doesn’t get some dreary story arc that sees her OD and subsequently get clean for the sake of her daughters.
There are subtle cues that confirm suspicions that Monroe is taking advantage of Minnie, despite some reviewers highlighting the consensual nature of their relationship as a factor that distances this particular story from the usual representations of paedophilia on screen. That’s true, but I think Heller recognises a certain obligation to morality here, and when Minnie’s best friend Kimmie (Madeleine Waters) suggests over the phone that Monroe is being exploitative it’s clearly something that Minnie hadn’t considered before, and her reaction to the comment is telling: she knows that Kimmie is right. There are other subtle cues reminding us of Minnie’s age and inexperience in terms of her ability to deal with adult situations: when Monroe states (not for the first time) that they have to break up Minnie’s reaction is to ask whether her weight is the reason, rather than whether it’s anything to do with her age or her mother. When Minnie loses her virginity to Monroe she is wearing a t-shirt that features Robert Armstrong’s Mickey Rat character, a symbol that perfectly sums up via the obvious association with Disney’s Mickey Mouse that the character in question is leaving childhood and approaching adulthood. Or, to put it another way, on the one hand you have a character who is trying to negotiate her way through a very unusual, messy relationship for the first time, and on the other hand we see that she still partakes in the joys of dancing on her bed to music.
Minnie’s other dalliances – with drugs, other boys, and a brief lesbian relationship with Margarita Levieva’s Tabatha (another adult character who is sleeping with a child in the eyes of the law) – are handled just as sensitively as the main love triangle. This feels unusual, as do the moments in which the adults here elicit our sympathy despite their actions; Monroe’s buy-a-boat-and-sail-the-world dreams seem vaguely pathetic, as do Charlotte’s age-related neuroses (which are understandably exacerbated when her daughter starts sleeping with her partner). There’s a marvellous moment in which Minnie’s father Pascal (a brief, scene-stealing turn by Christopher Meloni) sizes up his ex-wife’s lover as the stoned Monroe lazes on the couch eating cereal, and it’s difficult not to side with the younger man as the supercilious alpha walks away with a look of disgust on his face. And it would be easy to condemn Charlotte’s behaviour – passed out one minute, dancing the next – if it weren’t so sad and pathetic and so obviously caused by something.
The sidelining of Minnie’s high school life is another way that The Diary Of A Teenage Girl stands apart from other coming-of-age movies, which tend to wallow nostalgically in such an environment. One of the few ways in which the film does fall in line with many others that have gone before it is in the way an older man is depicted as being the trigger for Minnie’s feelings about sex; in that sense May-December romances from films as diverse as American Beauty, Leon, An Education, Beautiful Girls, The Opposite Of Sex, Fish Tank, Lost In Translation and Ghost World spring to mind, even if some are unconsummated. The latter, by Terry Zwigoff, seems doubly relevant because of its graphic novel origins and determinedly indie style.
What we have here, then, is a trio of interesting, well-drawn central characters, with performances that do justice to each one. The 20-year-old Powley is superb (as well as being visually believable) while Skarsgård and Wiig both surprised me. The sensitive handling of the material is partly due to the combined work of the three actors, as well as that of Heller and Gloeckner, while the director’s experience of staging this material as a play beforehand will surely have helped. Heller also judges the length and frequency of the sex scenes perfectly. There are enough of these for the film’s 18 rating in the UK to be understandable, even if there has been some debate suggesting this supposedly precludes those who would possibly benefit the most from seeing it, namely girls around the ages of 15 and 16 (though, really, if any teenager wants to see this film I expect they’ll find a way). Here in the UK the BBFC are charged with applying set criteria to determine the rating of films, and they are bound by strict guidelines, even if their page warning that ‘… still pictures and short animated sequences include the sight of penises, both erect and flaccid’ makes it sound like an elderly Victorian man slapped the certificate on.
An extra layer is added by Sara Gunnarsdóttir’s animation, which sporadically intrudes and enhances our assumed understanding of Minnie’s feelings, and while I often find such contrived touches off-putting they didn’t bother me much at all and fit perfectly with Minnie’s own burgeoning career as an illustrator. Ditto the diarising, which is a familiar trope but still remains a valuable way of presenting the innermost thoughts of a character that you would otherwise struggle to identify with, particularly in this case if you’re an adult male. As stated earlier: what a fine film this is.
Directed by: Marielle Heller.
Written by: Marielle Heller. Based on The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures by Phoebe Gloeckner.
Starring: Bel Powley, Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgård, Madeleine Water, Margarita Levieva, Abigail Wait, Christopher Meloni.
Cinematography: Brandon Trost.
Editing: Marie-Hélène Dozo, Koen Timmerman.
Music: Nate Heller.
Running Time: 102 minutes.