Diary of a Teenage Girl Dir. Marielle Heller

[Sony Picture Classics; 2015]

Styles: Teen Melodrama, Sexploitation
Others: Ghost World, Nymphomaniac

Let’s face it. Teenage sex has always been a subject of interest to everyone, from the moralizer to the pervert, the nerd to the jock, the virgin to the libertine. If there were a time and place when this subject was perhaps most interesting, 70s San Francisco would make it on to pretty much every short list, for obvious reasons. It’s a shame then that Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, based on the semi-autobiographical illustrated novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, fails to seriously evoke or explore the era in which it’s set. Perhaps budgetary concerns forced Heller into the narrower version of the film, which plays out like a 1930s kids-gone-wild “shock” melodrama filtered through the lens of 70s sexploitation cinema. Or perhaps the title is indicative of the film’s larger aim, that despite such a unique cultural time and setting, this really could be any teenage girl’s story of first love and sexual awakening. If that is the case, the title suggests at least a hint of irony to undermine this notion. The “diary” is in fact a series of tape recordings that 15-year-old Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) uses to chronicle her love affair with Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), who happens to be the boyfriend of her mother (Kristen Wiig).

Of course, if the modern trend is to resist all things ironic in favor of sincerity, Heller follows this thread by focusing on the hyper-personal aspects of the story. By leaning so much on Minnie’s point-of-view, the film seeks to convey a kind of in-the-moment rawness to her emotions. As Minnie channels her sexual fixations into drawings and doodles, the film incorporates these animated elements, her subjectivity literally stepping into the frame. The world presented by the film belongs to Minnie, and there are few if any scenes in which she does not participate. Yet teenagers are myopic by nature, an effect that inevitably carries over into the larger film. Sure, it’s amusing to see some of Minnie’s animated cock drawings in motion, but her sex obsession remains more or less internal to herself. This solipsism obscures the more details from the world around her.

The way in which Minnie moves between the world of teenagers, the world of adults, and the world of kids (the latter through her younger sister, or even through cartooning, a childish activity that becomes “grown up” in this time period through underground comics) presents an interesting dynamic, but the absence of a larger perspective outside of Minnie’s emotional reactions leaves no avenue to consider her place in all these sub-societies. Heller is good at extracting the performances she wants from the cast, but the film never puts them into scenes where their interactions point towards anything larger than the immediate moment. Gloeckner may have based the source material on her own experiences, but she did so from the vantage of adulthood; Heller further mediates this position with her own distance in both time and space. Maybe the filmmakers crept too carefully around the sensitivity of their topic, not wanting to appear judgmental. Today, media culture would jump to label Minnie’s relationship with Monroe as child molestation, but the perspective within the time period and place was obviously different. Ultimately, this only makes it all the more puzzling why the film does not attempt to really establish the unique cultural conditions of its premise. The film plays towards the general thirst for authenticity and character, but at the expense of a larger sense of truth about the world it depicts.

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