0343 | The Diary Of A Teenage Girl

THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRLWhat 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 thediaryofateenagegirl2 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 The-Diary-of-a-Teenage-Gi-009situations: 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.
Certificate: 18.
Running Time: 102 minutes.
Year: 2015.

Comments 14

  1. Tom August 13, 2015

    LOVE the sound of this. I think here in the States it is being treated with a very minuscule limited release which is frustrating. We get all these brainless exercises where you have to try and find a theater *not* playing them, whereas you have to actually do research to find somewhere that has the indie mindset. Ugh.

    I’m glad you clarified the paedophilic element later on in this piece, when I first was reading about the dynamic between Minnie, Monroe and Charlotte I was completely shocked. I was like, there’s no way I read this right. Is there? haha. Very interesting relationship study indeed.

    • Stu August 13, 2015

      That’s a shame, I hope you can see it as this is one of my favourites of recent months. I never thought I’d be saying that about a film called ‘The Diary Of A Teenage Girl’, but there you go.
      It’s very interesting to see a film that adopts this approach to a relationship that’s inappropriate in the eyes of the law (and indeed in the eyes of many people who will watch it). It’s difficult to really say whether Minnie is a ‘victim’, despite her age. Sometimes it seems as though Monroe is taking advantage of her, other times she is doing something that she wants to do and has the necessary maturity to make up her own mind. A hot potato but the filmmaker deals with it really well.

  2. Todd Benefiel August 13, 2015

    Your review makes me very interested in seeing this, but like Tom above, I have the same problem finding these ‘little’ films that never play anywhere near me. There’s a theater in Scottsdale that shows all the fine-art and indie releases, but that’s well out of my biking zone; luckily, the theater right next door to me will sometimes get these movies, so I’ll keep my eyes open. (I just checked: it’s opening this Friday at…that theater in Scottsdale, and nowhere else). Neat review, Stu…and Kristen Wiig is looking pretty good in ’70s mode!

    • Stu August 13, 2015

      Thanks very much Todd. It’s a shame it’s not getting a wider release but pretty predictable, especially in the summer holidays where it’s all kids films and blockbusters. Luckily I’ve been going into London a lot of late so there’s a choice of cinemas within a radius of two or three miles that show stuff like this. I have to say it’s cool that you live right next door to a theatre (or ‘theater’, as you Americans insist on calling them)!

      • Todd Benefiel August 13, 2015

        Yes, it’s very cool to be a 4-minute walk to an 18-plex…and to have nine free passes in my pocket just itching to be used. I’ve noticed you’ve been hitting a lot of ‘theat-ray’ movies of late…do you visit one in particular, or do you try different ones? Is there a favorite you have there in London? If so, I’ll look it up on Cinema Treasures and see what it’s like.

        • Stu August 13, 2015

          I go to a few different ones, but my favourites in London (since you asked, and in no particular order) are the Curzon Soho, the Picturehouse Central (which is newly opened), the Everyman Baker Street, the Brixton Ritzy, the Renoir (or Curzon Bloomsbury as it’s now known), the ICA and the Prince Charles Cinema, where the man himself occasionally introduces the screenings (he’s currently presenting the Schwarzenegger all-nighters).

        • Todd Benefiel August 13, 2015

          I’ll check ’em out! And what interesting names…a bit more exotic than the Harkins Arrowhead 18! (Just checked out the PCC…what a COOL place to see movies! And ‘Paper Moon’ on the 16th!)

        • Stu August 13, 2015

          One of the few cinemas still screening 35mm, too! The Harkins Arrowhead 18 sounds like a fighter plane or an elite band of mercenaries sent in to clean various government or military problems in a Quentin Tarantino film.

  3. ruth August 14, 2015

    I heard about this one but it didn’t immediately intrigue me. I might rent it at some point though. I like that you use the word ‘dalliances’ … it’s a word that’s not used very often but it’s perfect here!

    • Stu August 17, 2015

      Cheers mate. I’m in need of a break and off on holiday for a couple of weeks soon, and might scale it back after that (short reviews only for older films, probably). A shame you can’t see this at the moment, though it’s one of those that’ll fare just as well on the small screen. I was really impressed.

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