Dir: Marielle Heller
Sony Pictures Classics, US, 2015
Starring: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Kristen Wiig
Teenage sex odyssey geared for adults.
Bel Powley is twenty-two, but in Marielle Heller’s debut film, she plays a fifteen year old, Minnie, discovering sex for the first time. This means that in real life she can legally appear naked onscreen, but diegetically you’re watching a fifteen year old taking part in graphic sex. And quite often, it’s graphic sex with a grown man, namely her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), a man twenty years her senior. The nature of the relationship between Monroe and Bowley’s character isn’t revealed until she’s spent the first ten minutes of the film delivering a stream-of-consciousness monologue, most of which she records in an audio diary, wherein she discusses the rush of feelings and thoughts she’s experiencing after the surrendering of her virginity. Some of this opening is funny, some of it is naïve, and eventually it becomes considerably uncomfortable. That’s the line The Diary of a Teenage Girl walks.
While Monroe is certainly paedophilic in his actions, this isn’t a film about sexual abuse. Minnie is a teenaged girl living in San Francisco in 1976, and doesn’t behave like one in the slightest; she generally stays at home, spending most of her time either inside her head, or drawing semi-surreal cartoons and comics in India ink. The only company she keeps regularly is her one friend, Kimmie (Madeleine Waters), who is considerably more sexually active than she is (and certainly more attentive to her own appearance), her strung-out single mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), her younger sister Gretel (Abigail Wait) with whom she regularly clashes, and Monroe.
From this, Minnie has become restless in her own company and insecure about the way she looks, and worst of all, realises everybody else is probably getting laid on the regular. So when her and Monroe’s evident sexual tension comes to the fore, Minnie begins to work with what she’s got and takes the opportunity to progress herself sexually, explaining in her voiceover narrative that she only does so because she doesn’t know if she’ll ever again get another chance to have sex.
Weird virginity losses, under-confident voiceover narrations and adolescent musings immediately generate red alerts for twee-ness, and indeed, with its intermittent sequences of animation, The Diary of a Teenage Girl seems as though it’s seconds away from turning into one of the many descendents of Juno. But the movie is told through Minnie’s perspective, via the memories of Phoebe Gloeckner who authored the graphic novel upon which this movie is based, telling the story from the vantage point of her adulthood; so while a lot of Minnie’s dialogue is Garden State-variety teen poetry, the rest of the characters are considerably less aloof than she is. This is entirely refreshing because it mixes the innate pretentiousness of adolescence with the rougher edges of real life.
In many cases, Powley’s portrayal of Minnie constructs her as part-child, part-adult, which interestingly sidesteps the attempts of movies such as Agnus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging in creating a mythical being somewhere between maturity and immaturity; particularly, this makes Minnie’s characterisation seem way more realistic. In this sense, The Diary of a Teenage Girl leans away from the late ’00s indie dramedies (a genre so insufferable they invented an equally insufferable word for them) and closer to rough-edged teen movies, such as the beautifully frank Blue is the Warmest Colour and the deathly uncomfortable Thirteen. Gloeckner’s graphic novel is reportedly semi-autobiographical, and this adaptation retains its uncompromising warts-and-all aesthetic, particularly regarding the relationship between Minnie and Monroe.
Many would prefer to categorise such a thing as child abuse, but the fact is that Minnie drives the situation as much as Monroe does in some instances. The situation thus become three-dimensional, and the film manages to remain considerably objective, intelligent and reasonable regarding a dark matter. Minnie is, by her own concession, an insecure teenager groping for attention, and ready to trade in some of her dignity just to get some; from there, the movie effectively stimulates the pangs of regret borne from surrendering that dignity to those who know better. She gets used, she does unglamorous things, and she spends most of her time trying to understand the whole situation, but the film’s final judgement is that it’s okay to do weird shit when you’re scrambling to familiarise yourself with the baffling concept of adulthood, especially when it’s looming over the fading paradise of childhood. After all, Minnie is only human, and the film does well to establish that fact in a wholly convincing way.
- L. G. Ball