I live in a house with a pair of teenage girls, so the idea of having access to their diaries or their unfiltered thoughts frightens me to no end, especially after watching The Diary of a Teenage Girl. It’s the debut feature of writer-director Marielle Heller, who in 2012 earned both a Screenwriting Fellow and a Directing Fellow at the Sundance Institute along with snagging the Lynn Auerbach Screenwriting Fellowship and a Maryland Film Festival Fellowship.
The film presents a challenge, forcing me to create two distinct analytical perspectives as I enter the frames. On one hand, I approach the film as a critic, a wildly open viewer unafraid of the content or the stylized rendering of the narrative.
Heller embraces Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel on which the film is based and threads the film as if it was still a graphic tale, full of hand-drawn portraits with rich human foibles on display and the kind of surreal fantasies we can conjure up during our teenage years, before we cross over into the cool or hip or staid patterns of adulthood. There is a careless and carefree blurring of the delineations between live action and what happens to be animated, and we happily get more than a few teasing hints, but not too much as to cheapen the effect.
This is truly what it feels like to be inside someone’s head — in this case, a 15-year-old budding artist named Minnie (Bel Powley) with a fabulously flirty mother (Kristen Wiig, in another sad clown role with surprising depth that she plunges into headlong). Minnie is growing up in a rush in 1970s San Francisco, and this coming-of-age tale dares us to sprint along beside her. Imagine your own musings, the interior dialogues, the occasional flights of fancy, the constant testing and questioning of your moral and psychological foundation. It’s all there, wild and loose, thanks to the hormonal currents sweeping Minnie along.
She’s in love with her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), and he’s got feelings for her. The trip-stumble-tumble into an inappropriate sexual relationship between them is explained, in part, by the times.
Even though free love was in the rearview by the ’70s, San Francisco might have been one of the last stops, so it was much closer in the mirror these two were using. But this was no Lolita situation; neither of them is exactly wrapped around the other’s fingers. Minnie and Monroe are far from cultural sophistication, although of the two, it is Minnie who we know will earn the distinction.
I loved her as a character and found myself rooting for her because of that fearlessness she possessed in such abundance, and for those big eyes of hers. Powley looks like the inspiration for a thousand Tim Burton Big Eyes pieces, those searching orbs of hers like twin black-hole suns sucking everything in. It is no wonder she can’t quite figure things out. She’s like a newborn taking in far more visual stimulation than she will ever be able to process.
Powley’s performance reminds me of the open soul Adèle Exarchopoulos laid bare in Blue is the Warmest Color. It comes as no surprise that Powley has been deemed one of Variety’s 10 Actors to Watch for 2015.
Of course, I must get to the second and far more difficult part of the challenge presented by The Diary of a Teenage Girl — the aspect that has nothing at all to do with my critical perspective. I was forced to confront my more paternal reaction to Minnie and her whirlwind awakening as a young woman.
The film reveals the more explicit nature of intimacy and sexuality for teenage girls, which is far deeper than the instant gratification guys seek. We see Minnie raw and naked beyond the flesh.
While it is plain that “everybody hurts,” as a parent, I don’t want to see Minnie go through this pain, especially at the hands of someone like Monroe. He is not an evil predator by any stretch of the imagination, but what he does is impossible to forgive.
I wanted to save Minnie from him and the choices she makes, although without those choices, she wouldn’t emerge as the young woman we know she will one day be. Would I feel the same way about my own girls?
Intellectually and in an idealized philosophical world, I talk progressively. I immediately embrace the right to live and learn.
I can watch Heller’s rendering of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, but I shudder in my heart of hearts when I imagine hearing the voice of one of my girls. It gives me pause, yet I know I must read on. (Opens Friday) Grade: B+