Wednesday, August 26, 2015

New movie review: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Bel Powley stars in writer-director Marielle Heller's new film The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Never have I been a teenage girl. It is a flaw of mine that cannot be corrected. That being true, I am not the target audience for The Diary of a Teenage Girl, nor am I probably in a position to gauge its reality and emotional honesty. I can say this about first-time writer-director Marielle Heller’s new film, based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Phoebe Gloeckner: It is beautifully acted and lovingly crafted, and it certainly feels real.

Relative newcomer Bel Powley plays Minnie, a 15-year-old girl growing up in ’70s San Francisco and exploring her burgeoning sexuality. Her mother is mostly absent from her life, her little sister is too young to understand her experiences, and her primary father figure no longer lives nearby. For all intents and purposes, she is alone, and the film does an expert job of depicting how Minnie conflates physical closeness with emotional connection.

At one point, she strips naked and looks herself over in her bedroom mirror. In voiceover, she says she desperately wants somebody to touch her body, but she fears no one will ever want to. The combination of desire, low self-esteem, and teenage hormones makes Minnie vulnerable, and the first person to pounce on that vulnerability is Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), her mother’s boyfriend.

There is no sugarcoating in the script, which opens with the line, “Today, I had sex for the first time. Holy shit.” Minnie loses her virginity to Monroe. They will have many more sexual liaisons, which are depicted explicitly but not luridly throughout the film. It is hard to say how a male director would have handled this material, but as forthright as Heller is with her lead’s sexuality, the scenes are photographed matter-of-factly, with little prurient interest.

We are not meant to be turned on by this love affair, but we should not be repulsed either. Like Minnie, the audience is on a journey of discovery. We have the benefit of distance and the knowledge that this relationship is damaging to her. Minnie does not have this benefit and must learn, as we all do, by trial and error.

Powley, who has appeared on a number of British television series and in one previous feature film, is the heart of the movie. Everything rests on her ability to convey the feeling of being aggressively sexual but too inexperienced to understand how that sexuality will affect her life and relationships. Powley carries this off with brightness and the kind of cock-eyed certainty youth affords.

Skarsgård is good enough as Monroe to make you almost forget the creepy, predatory nature of the character and feel sorry for this doofus who does only what is most convenient for him – almost. Kristen Wiig, who plays Minnie’s mom, is also solid in the mostly dramatic role of a woman whose life has not tuned out the way she hoped and which continues to spiral out of control.

Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgard also star.
The world needs more stories like this, preferably, as in this case, told by female storytellers. Heller, who spearheaded the effort to bring The Diary of a Teenage Girl to the screen, is a clearly gifted filmmaker. She and cinematographer Brandon Trost, known mostly for his work on action films, capture the gauzy feel of the early ’70s and deftly parallel that with the haze of being a teenager in a world for which you are not quite prepared.

Immediately after watching the film, I was troubled by the almost single-minded focus on Minnie’s sexuality. She has few other defining traits. She wants to be an artist and is often shown drawing. She has some correspondence with artist Aline Kominsky, who in the timeline of the film, is yet to become Robert Crumb’s wife but who is already a talented artist in her own right. That is about it, though. She is a wannabe artist who is obsessed with sex.

I wondered if this is a reductive view of teenagers in general and teenage girls in particular. Surely, teenage girls must have more on their minds than sex, having sex, and who will have sex with them. Minnie does not seem to think about anything more than sex and has conversations that always wrap back around to sex in some way. I initially considered this a failure on the part of the film, particularly as there are so few stories in theaters about teenage girls and their real lives – anyone living in a dystopian sci-fi future or who is in love with a vampire does not count.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I reconsidered this position. I made the mistake of asking Minnie to represent all teenage girls – again, due to their lack of representation in the marketplace, this was just my first instinct – but this is an unfair burden to place upon the film. Given the semi-autobiographical nature of the source material, it would be more fitting to view this as the story of one teenage girl. Minnie is a specific person. She is no one’s archetype, and her preoccupations are her own.

Seen in this light, the problem is less with the film and more with the Hollywood system that refuses to tell relatable stories about teenage girls. I promise teenage girls go to the movies just as much as teenage boys; however, it is doubtful the two demographics are served by the same films. The solution, then, is not to quibble over the story of Minnie, who has every right to be whomever she wants to be, but instead to push for more films about girls like Minnie but whose preoccupations may be different. That would be progress.

See it? Yes.

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