Once in a great while a movie comes along that skirts its subject so blithely it becomes ambiguous to a fault. “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” fits squarely into this rare category, and I’d probably slam it for this were it not so exceptionally well-executed on every other front.
Despite myriad situations worthy of sharp opinion, “Teenage Girl” doesn’t craft its flashpoint issue incisively enough to ignite discussion (as did, say, “Obvious Child”). Instead, it simply draws a gorgeous picture of a far-from-gorgeous reality through the eyes of a girl who thinks it’s gorgeous, and then leaves it to us to interpret the events it depicts.
So since it asked…
I’m of the mind that when something so prevalent, insidious, and negatively determinative is allowed to pass with a “Meh,” that’s unsettling. And that’s what we have here.
Based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s heavily autobiographical semi-autobiographical graphic novel (how much wood can a woodchuck chuck?), “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” brings us the exploits of Minnie, a 15-year-old girl coming of age in 1976 San Francisco.
The elder daughter of free-spirited single mom Charlotte, Minnie has no relationship with her father, yet remains in the deep affection of her former stepfather Pascal (largely absent and father to her half-sister Gretel), and enjoys a playful camaraderie with her mother’s manchild boyfriend, Monroe.
If you think that was a complicated mouthful, welcome to Minnie’s life.
“Teenage Girl” offers an expressive, insightful, and frank portrayal of that confusing period in which starkly defined events somehow still melt into the curiously amorphous passage between adolescence and adulthood, and of Minnie’s intrepid but naturally bewildered attempts to navigate it.
Opening with a superbly crafted sequence to rival that of “The Devil Wears Prada”, its first words are, “I had sex today,” and as Minnie wonders if she looks different, we join into her wonder about the experience – which was with the 35-year-old Monroe.
Thing is, as marvelous as Minnie’s inner experience is to behold, in treating the actions of the so-called responsible adults in her home with such nonchalance, the story often seems to offer tacit endorsement (or perhaps resignation).
From an observer’s perspective (I guess I have my mama bear hat on this week – “Cop Car” round two), this one could as easily be called “”The Diary of a Teenage Girl in a Home That’s Forgotten She’s Still an Actual Girl and Leaves Her Vulnerable to a Sexual Predator.” Harsh, but nothing I suspect Gloeckner herself would argue.
“Teenage Girl” does present us with a few amusing counterpoint moments (including actual-man Pascal’s appraisal of the couch-loafin’, cereal-munchin’, “H.R. Pufnstuf”-watchin’ Monroe), and none of this is to say that the portrayal of Minnie’s dawning maturity wasn’t accurate or that her explorations were in any way inappropriate per se.
It’s just that I’m not sure we need, for example, to be witnessing Minnie’s detailed analysis of her nude body form in quite this context while putting a sex positive spin on the proceedings. Though the actress portraying her is well over 21 years old, our protagonist is, in fact, a 15-year-old girl who is being … whatever you want to call it… by a 35-year-old man, and if my teenage girl were being whatever you want to call it in this way, there would be some handcuffs involved (and not the kind some people find fun).
Is Monroe an outright predator? No. Nevertheless, there’s a little matter called consent, and Monroe does not, cannot, have it. “Teenage Girl” is “Bastard Out of Carolina” with a girl old enough to give it were all things in fact equal, a mother who’s willfully blind vs. complicit, and a man whose drive is banal rather than ferocious. But it’s the same story, and the fact that this is nowhere acknowledged is… disappointing.
Minnie’s big takeaway is that you don’t need a man to be happy – which is, of course, our dream takeaway for any teenage girl. But it might be nice to acknowledge the equally dream takeaway that the true man around here was not Monroe, but in fact Pascal.
Because the dynamic informs every aspect of Minnie’s unfolding life experience (hello), not acknowledging its nature distracts from all the other wondrous elements to be found in this film: the awards-worthy performances from Powley and Skarsgård (and Wiig nails the drama this time, to my great relief) … the superbly effective “American Splendor”-style comics integration … its captivating score and soundtrack … and sparkling authenticity throughout courtesy of writer/director Marielle Heller.
Vibing on the wavelength of Diablo Cody (“Juno”, “Young Adult”), Heller is one to watch, and I will happily sign up for her next outing. But despite its undeniable cinematic accomplishments, in skirting its driving force, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” ends up offering little more than an eloquent description of an unfortunate slice of life.
Still, as it implies, the interpretation is yours.
Story: Coming of age story about a 1970’s 15-year-old whose quest for womanhood begins with her mother’s boyfriend.
Genre: Drama, Character Study
Themes: Boundaries, Ethics, Honesty, Maturity, Self-Acceptance, Self-Confidence, Temptation, Youth and Age
Starring: Bel Powley, Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgård, Christopher Meloni, Abby Wait
Directed by: Marielle Heller
Running time: 102 minutes
Houston release date: August 21, 2015
Tickets: Check IMDb.com or your local listings
Screened August 18, 2015 at the Edwards Grand Palace theater in Houston TX