Saturday, May 21, 2016

Coming of (a New) Age: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgård in The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015).

In 2003, the movie Thirteen, written by fledgling actress Nikki Reed (Twilight) and Catherine Hardwicke garnered critical acclaim for its bold, provocative portrayal of the seedy secret lives of early teens experimenting with drugs, sex, and alcohol. While films like American Pie (1999) offered a frank but socially acceptable look at the first sexual forays of young men, Thirteen followed the trajectory for exploring budding sexuality in young girls set by a long history of grim, moralizing tales from Samuel Richardson’s 1748 novel, Clarissa, to Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2013). Although still largely regarded as one of the more honest and realistic glimpses into what teens are up to behind closed doors, Thirteen did nothing new for women’s sexuality or autonomy – it reminded us, as stories have told us since time immemorial, that young women who give in to sexual desire, who dare to experiment with sex or drugs, are opening the door to a world of victimhood, shame, and regret.

Tackling almost exactly the same subject matter as Harwicke’s Thirteen, Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl differs only in setting, critical buzz, and, most importantly, tone. Adapted from a semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, the 2015 film offers a candid and refreshing story of a teen girl’s incredibly messy first sexual experiences growing up in 1970s San Francisco. Minnie Goetz (newcomer Bel Powley) is a 15-year-old who likes drawing (the film is embellished with 70s-inspired, Monty Python-esque comic drawings from Minnie’s imagination), doesn’t love school, and lives in a cozy, liberal household with her free spirit mother (Kristen Wiig), gawky but adorable little sister, Gretel (Abby Wait), and any number of mom’s party friends who’ve come to crash for the night. After he accidentally grazes her boob with his hand, mom’s handsome underachiever boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård, complete with bell-bottoms and porn-star mustache) becomes the object of Minnie’s overwhelming teenage lust. The two embark on an ill-advised affair behind her mother’s back which Minnie chronicles in an audio diary comprised of a series of unmarked cassette tapes carelessly strewn about her bedroom. Naturally, Minnie’s sexual awakening via Monroe leads her to satisfy her curiosity about a slew of other taboo subjects which she also records for posterity, alongside her musings about standard 15-year-old topics like whether or not losing her virginity makes her look different, if paramour Monroe masturbates thinking about her, and, less directly, about the complex and often confusing overlap between a good lay and actual love. The diaries, like Minnie, are unreserved and unashamed; her voice is clear, direct, and distinct while being unmistakably teenage.

Kristen Wiig and Bel Powley in The Diary of a Teenage Girl.
It’s hard to believe that Diary is stage actor Bel Powley’s first film. At 23 years old (mercifully, as she spends a significant amount of time on screen naked), Powley is substantially older than the character she plays yet she manages to infuse Minnie with the right balance of precociousness and youthful naiveté. She is critical but carefree; curious without being judgmental. Powley walks a fine line in this role, ultimately creating a character that is savvy in so many ways while being entirely clueless in others. Her on-screen chemistry with Skarsgård is eerily organic and convincing to boot: their questionable romance at the heart of the film is portrayed fairly and without reaching for tired morals. To be clear, a 35-year-old man having an affair with a 15-year old girl is objectively Not Okay but the film treats their sexual relationship as an adult mistake made by two consenting parties. Minnie’s autonomy, her agency in creating this weird, limping romance with Monroe is the necessary component that allows The Diary of a Teenage Girl to flourish as a positive coming-of-age story while other, similar films feel the need to wax philosophical about the dangers of female sexuality. By treating the, again, objectively icky relationship between Minnie and Monroe in this manner, Diary allows its protagonist room for growth by holding her accountable for her actions instead of painting her as a victim.

As for Monroe himself, Skarsgård perhaps walks an ever finer line than Powley and does so with skill and grace. Tall, handsome, and unpretentious, Skarsgård achieves the optimal mix of charming and creepy, making Monroe a convincing object of rampant teenage desire but managing to do so in a way that the adult audience will recognize the character for what he is: an emotionally stunted loser who is offered a rare chance to live out a fantasy and takes it. Monroe is damaged, or stupid, or ... something – we, like Minnie, take pity on him by the end of the film – but whatever his problem is, Heller leaves it to the imagination; this is Minnie’s story and Monroe’s baggage is irrelevant.

Kristen Wiig also deserves high praise as a dramatic actress for her portrayal of Minnie’s young-at-heart mother. Whether she’s passed out on the shag carpet or power cleaning the house with her girlfriend after a couple rails of coke, Charlotte Goetz is zany enough to be a typical Kristen Wiig role but the comedic aspects of her character are reined in tightly, adding dimension to Minnie’s story without pulling focus away from it. Again, Diary excels by refusing to cast judgment on Charlotte; she drinks, she parties, she’s probably not an ideal mom, but Heller wisely frustrates any urge we feel to draw a moral from Charlotte’s lifestyle. She does a lot of drugs, and dates a lot of men, but she’s also a good friend and caring mother. Minnie’s story of accepting herself as she is also necessitates that we accept both Charlotte and Monroe as they are.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl’s outstanding performances mixed with its nuanced writing, refreshing liberal attitudes, and rich, 1970s ambience mark it as what I can only hope will be the coming-of-age story of a new era. Finally, a body positive, sex positive, female-empowering film has arrived to provide a much needed counterpoint to conventional and ubiquitous “fallen woman” stories like Thirteen and their requisite doom and gloom. If audiences can give Jim Levenstein a free pass for putting his dick in a pie, its high time we gave teen girls room to make embarrassing mistakes as they too explore their sexuality.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario. 

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