Diary of a Teenage Girl (dir. Marielle Heller)

Posted: September 4, 2015 in Uncategorized

We’ve all seen tons of films about teenage girls who get involved with older men who aren’t good for them.  Or we’ve seen films about young girls who are sexually curious, and how that leads to dark places for them.  This not a new genre.  There are plenty of bad Lifetime movies about this topic, and even some good real films like “Thirteen” (2003).  What most, if not all, of these films have in common is their moralizing.  Whether the films are preachy after-school specials, whether they involve drugs or rape or pregnancy or other events in a parade of horribles, they all pretty much argue that sex when you’re a young girl (between 13-17) holds nothing good for you.

As more attention is now being placed to how women are portrayed in film, thanks to things like the popularization of the Bechdel Test and other feminist film critiques, the American film industry is beginning to get better at this sort of thing. It was just two years ago that we got “The To-Do List”, a sex-positive female spin on that old genre of the teen sex comedy.  That film was very funny and refreshing.  Now, “Diary of a Teenage Girl” gives us a sex-neutral female spin on the coming of age story.  It’s set in the late 1970s, so it has more in common with female-centered films like ”Welcome to the Dollhouse” (1995) and  “Ghost World” 2001), films which were contemporaneous but felt period because of their off-kilter tones and production designs, than the coming-of-age films we generally think of.  The film doesn’t break any ground in the nuts and bolts of the story, but the film is handled in such a refreshing way that it feels a lot more original than it is.
Our protagonist is 15-year-old Minnie, played by 23-year-old Bel Powley.  I mention her age for two reasons: Powley delivers an absolutely phenomenal performance that truly feels like a naïve but above-average-intelligence 15-year-old girl, and because she does a very large amount of nudity in the film, and if you don’t know that she’s 23, you may feel really, really bad while watching the film.  The nudity isn’t particularly erotic, and given the context of the film it is not gratuitous, but it’s ever-present.  The nudity, shot in clinical close-ups and matter-of-fact wide shots, function to show us what Minnie thinks of her body.  She’s self-conscious much of time, proud and comfortable at other times, pleased with the effect it can have on men sometimes, not-so-happy other times.  The film is attempting to show us female nudity away from the famous “male gaze”, yet to not drain it completely of its inherent sexuality.  The film is attempting to show us female nudity from the outside, but viewed almost as the person who lives within the body views that body.  It’s a tricky feat, and the director, Marielle Heller (an actress before now, as this film marks her first writing and directing credit) pulls it off.

The plot is, as previously stated, fairly familiar.  Minnie lives with her single mother (Kristin Wiig, in a completely dramatic role) and her younger sister.  Her mother is a latter-day hippie who dumped her previous husband (Christopher Meloni) and now does a moderate amount of drugs and engages in a small amount of free-love.  The mother’s crimes as a parent are not so much the drugs, or the implied sex, but her selfishness.  She’s not negligent, exactly (the family has a decent dwelling, and they don’t seem want for necessities, or even family time in front of the TV), but she’s so focused on herself and acting younger than she is that, well, she’s not even viewing what’s going on with her daughter.  By the end of the film, she’s not an object of scorn so much as one of pity to her daughter.

He rmother’s non-committal boyfriend is Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard).  In other films, Monroe would be the older male preying on the young and virginal Minnie.  This film decides to not take things so black and white.  Monroe is clearly in the wrong, and clearly a scumbag, but the film doesn’t make him into a one-dimensional monster.  Monroe is a realistic alcoholic who dreams big dreams about himself, but who no one views all that positively.  He’s a loser, he knows he’s a loser, and when Minnie starts making tentative moves on him, Monroe is at least as much turned on by someone viewing him with rose-colored glasses as he is by sex with a teenager.

So, Minnie and Monroe have a sexual relationship, which is odd as Monroe and Minnie’s mother also have a relationship.  The course of the relationship involves Minnie in a competition with her mother in her head for Monroe’s affections, her insecurities about her body (she thinks that she is fat, she’s not, and that her breasts are too small, of which Monroe never complains), and as to whether Monroe really loves her and finds her attractive.  She records a diary of her life on cassette tapes, and she begins to draw odd, Robert Crumb-like comics (which sometimes spill over into the real world, adding some visual flair to the film).  When Monroe puts the breaks on things, Minnie has sex with a boy at school, until the boy is later put off by her sexual enthusiasm.  Yes, this film is not afraid to tell us what should be obvious: young girls can have a sex drive too.  The real question is not whether Minnie wants sex, or wants sex with Monroe, but rather how Minnie can even really know what she wants at 15, and what the proper way to figure that out is.

I want to give an example of how this film differs from other films that deal with these topics.  There is one scene in the film where Minnie and her friend (Madeleine Waters) go out to the city to see “Rocky Horror”.  Afterwards, they are at a bar, and see two cute guys.  They joke about whether the guys will think they’re prostitutes, and engage in conversation about how prostitutes must be really beautiful and strong to have men want to pay them for sex. (Again, they’re 15 and have no idea what they’re talking about).  Minnie walks over to them and quasi-jokingly offers the boys to blow them for $5.00 or have sex with for $15.00.  The boys pool together $5.00 each and Minnie and her friend blow them in the bathroom.  The very next scene is Minnie and her friend in Minnie’s bedroom calmly deciding that they don’t feel good about they did and don’t think they should so it anymore.  Now, setting aside that the film is set before the AIDS epidemic, in any other film this would be seen as a horrible, dark thing that totally ruins these girls.  Instead, this film treats it in a fashion that feels realistic and not as judge-y: they have the wrong idea about something, they do something rash and inadvisable, they feel bad about what they’ve done and decide not to do it again.  How many things in life, sexual or otherwise, does each of us have of these types of life events?  Rather than the film continuing to shame them, the film lets them make a mistake, learn from it, and move on.  They are not forever sullied by their dirty, immoral action, as other films would have them be.  The film has many other scenes that fall into the same category (not all sexual) and while the film comes close to falling into the narrative of a spiral of bad behavior, it stops the spiral just when the film feels like it’s flying too close to the sun of after-school special land.

While the unoriginality of the plot keeps the film from being great, the tone of non-judgment raises it above the level of most films with a similar plot.  The period setting and music drop us into the world of late 1970s San Francisco so well that it adds an extra little something to the proceedings as well, and as the 60s sexual revolution made its way to the bourgeoisie and middle-classes by the 70s (see the 1997 “The Ice Storm” for a film on that topic) the setting feels really right for the telling of this story in this way.  I like how the film ends with Minnie viewing her mother as her mother really is, and Monroe as Monroe really is.  Minnie is not damaged from her experiences, but she’s learned about herself and is changed for the better.  No one is changed without a few scars in life, and Minnie gets her.  Instead of feeling bad that Minnie went through this to get there, we as an audience should feel good that she realized life’s lessons early and without any permanent damage.  This is an oddly uplifting film in how pain and bad decisions are not always ruinous forces, but a part of everyone’s life. B+

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