Diary of a Teenage Girl

Sex, betrayal and ‘ludes in Me Decade San Francisco in Marielle Heller’s adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s semi-autobiographical graphic-and-prose novel. A review by Indy Datta.

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We first meet 15 year-old Minnie Goetze (British actor Bel Powley, heretofore best known for a recurring role in the sitcom Benidorm), just after she’s had sex for the first time. “Holy shit”, she says in voiceover, smiling contentedly. It turns out that her lover, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), a handsome, feckless slacker who dreams of getting rich by selling vitamin pills is both more than twice her age and also the current “main” boyfriend of her equally flaky mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig).

That voiceover belongs to the diary of the title, which Minnie records onto cassette tapes she hides in a shoebox under her bed, complete with a note warning her younger sister Gretel (Abigail Wait) to keep her nose out. You don’t have to be a student of Chekhov or a graduate of Sundance Labs to see where this is going (the tapes, and the shape they give the story are – as far as I can tell – an invention of the screenplay, and not present in either Gloeckner’s book or Heller’s previous off-Broadway stage adaptation, in which she played the lead to good reviews), but the virtues of Heller’s film, her first, survive the potentially deadening weight of such off-the-shelf elements.

It is arguable that some of those virtues are unappreciated by some of the critics who have given Diary a good reception at festivals this year, and by the film-maker herself.  The unacknowledged elephant here is the question of whether Minnie’s relationship with Monroe is abusive: Heller has been quick to say that she doesn’t see it that way, and critics have taken their lead from her, noting that the film gracefully skates over what could be queasily exploitative, or that it is “wonderfully amoral”.

But the work itself seems more complex and ambiguous. So, while Heller cleaves closely at all times to Minnie’s point of view, privileges her view of the relationship as one of equals (partly because Monroe is half a child himself), and treats her sexual and emotional awakening as a fulfilment rather than a violation, she is also a deft enough film maker to allow the audience to stand back from her characters and see them in ways they may not see themselves. So while both Minnie and Monroe believe that it was she who initiated their relationship, and that it is ultimately Monroe who is lovelorn and abandoned, it is clear that, at best, Monroe’s submission to Minnie’s advances is a dereliction of his responsibility to a child, and the references throughout the film to Patty Hearst’s purported Stockholm syndrome (the film is set in the same period as the Hearst trial) also double as a comment on Minnie’s consciousness.

It is also notable that, after Minnie, estranged from her mother when the affair is discovered, hits bottom (pimped out for ‘ludes by Lisa P. from Adventureland!) her recovery is achieved partly through other means of self-expression (she is a budding comic book artist, and her correspondence with her hero Aline Kominsky (later Kominsky-Crumb)  is often represented by animated flourishes, reminiscent of similar moments in American Splendor –in which R. Crumb plays a mentoring role), and partly by the reassertion of her childhood (the film’s final moment is an idyll of two sisters playing without care on a sun-dappled beach).

Heller’s film, then, is a tightrope walk between identification and perspective, and between the vividness and immediacy of her film-making and the honesty and bravery of her actors. While there is able support from the likes of Wiig and Christopher Meloni (as Minnie’s stepfather, who has relocated to New York, and is the film’s only representative of the adult/square world), and while Skarsgard is very fine, this is Bel Powley’s film – she’s in almost every scene, and is fearlessly, electrically present throughout, equally capable of conveying Minnie’s joy in her burgeoning sexuality and her fear of being unwanted, her creativity and her stubbornness, her vulnerability and her cruelty. It’s a gift of a part, but only for an actor capable of getting to grips with its complexity, and it should make Powley an instant star.

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