The Diary of a Teenage Girl
You’re lost, little girl/You’re lost, tell me who, are you.
I think that you know, what to do/impossible yes, but it’s true – Jim Morrison
The Doors sang that in the ‘60s, but it was a 10 years later that gave young folks perhaps a more confusing time in the ’70s. Filmmaker Marielle Heller gave us a tremendous debut, based on the semi-autobiographic book by artist/novelist Phoebe Gloeckner. And along with those two talented females, it’s the first time many Americans will be exposed to British actress Bel Powley. She’s playing Minnie, a 15-year-old who starts up an affair with her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) 35-year-old boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard). As much praise as Powel will get for her performance (and deservedly so), the entire cast is terrific. The way Skarsgard doesn’t come across as a creepy preditor, but just a ‘60s burn-out. Perhaps it helps that as we listen to Minnie, we realize she’s a lot smarter than this guy. He just happens to be handsome, and pays attention to her. The mom seems more interested in partying, sleeping around, and not being much of a parent.
Since Minnie is intelligent, the relationship feels a bit more natural, and it’s not until later in the film when we see the decisions and logic a teenage has (one moment insecure, the next extremely confident)…we realize why they have laws they do about statutory rape. It’s why those of us with a brain get so upset at everyone supporting Roman Polanski, and it’s why all of us realize that Subway’s Jared Fogel was such a creep; but again, this movie isn’t preachy or moralizing. They’re telling a story and it’s during a time period where – coming out of the ‘60s “free love” and drug generation – could be dangerous.
This was a great role for Wiig to play. She showed she had range with The Skeleton Twins, but that was an awful script with unlikable characters. This is a surprisingly humorous and dark script, and you won’t realize until you think about it later…Wiig played perhaps the worst mother on screen since Mommie Dearest; and because Heller did such a great job with this film, it’s not over the top. We also don’t get cheap laughs from Wiig. She’s playing a character, and you cringe rather than laugh, when you hear her tell her daughter, “I was a piece back at your age” or at a concert saying “If anyone asks, just say we’re sisters.”
This all seems rather authentic and we can see all of these scenarios happening the way they did. That’s refreshing.
Minnie narrates her diary into a tape record, which helps narrate the film. We also get to see her artwork, which is animated on the screen with her (and other characters). Although that technique has been done before in films, it works brilliantly here. Since she’s a fan of underground comics, the drawings have a Kominsky and Crumb feel (fun fact: author Gloeckner’s mother dated a guy in Robert Crumb’s band).
It’s amazing that this movie captured the vibe exactly as it should. Despite all the nudity and graphic situations, nothing felt gratuitous. There wasn’t anything erotic about it, and it doesn’t feel the least bit exploitative. Yet the graphic stuff, and the frequency with which we see it, needed to be done to drive home the points it’s trying to make.
The dialogue here is often so sharp. There’s one scene early in the relationship where Minnie asks Monroe (Skarsgard) in bed, “What’s your favorite color?”
He responds, “I don’t know…blue.”
There’s a few seconds of silence before he adds, “Why are you asking me such stupid questions?”
You want to reach out and slap the sh** out of him and yell, “Because she’s a kid, you idiot!”
Yet a much more adult exchange takes place later in the movie, and it involves two kids. One of her classmates flirts by passing her a note, asking her to write him a note. She writes him a pancake recipe.
The 1976 era San Francisco is captured perfectly. The one news story we hear a lot about being Patty Hearst. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was a subtle way of telling us…Hearst fell in love with her captors, and perhaps Minnie is in love with the one man in her life that’s showing her any attention.
Since it’s the ‘70s, we could’ve gotten an awful soundtrack. Instead, we get an incredible one with Heart (the beautiful “Dreamboat Annie”), Nico, Lou Reed, Mott the Hoople, T-Rex, and Iggy Pop (who is also in a poster on the wall).
There’s a finger sucking scene that rivals Juliette Lewis and De Niro in Cape Fear. There’s an awkward sex scene in a pool room that rivals the one with Jennifer Jason Leigh in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
This isn’t the usual Lolita story, and it’s a refreshing young female protagonist we get to watch, who completely embodies the logic of a teenager.
It’s not as painful as watching the teen girls that were seduced by older men in films like Towel Head and Blue Car, but it’s a better movie than both of those films.
It’s uneven at times, but you get Oscar-worthy performances from the entire cast.
It gets 3 ½ stars out of 5.