The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015 Top Movies, no.8)
Oddly, this may be the movie on the list that I found the hardest watch. Not for the explicit sex between the 15-year-old main character and her mother’s boyfriend (there’s much juicier stuff coming down the line, rest assured), which director Marielle Heller treats with smartly offhanded regard. What gets me is how closely this hits the mark on one of the secrets of growing up: that no matter how you do things, or what you aim for, you’ll do something wrong.
Titular girl Minnie Goetz (Bel Powley) lives with her recently-divorced mother (Kristen Wiig). Perhaps under the spell of depression, mom has fallen back into the bohemian lifestyle, having friends over every day to smoke pot and party with. Minnie doesn’t hate her for it; but the spell doesn’t seem to lift, not even after her mother finds a new boyfriend in Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). Soon both Minnie and her younger sister grasp how rudderless and messy their lives are going to be. Much has been said (in film and otherwise) of teenage turbulence, and the strange pressure to make the choices you’re supposed to make, without really knowing what they are or why. But Minnie has no role models to take after: her mother, whether or not she’s sober, seems reluctant to show the affection she used to. Her comically-rigid father (Christopher Meloni) can’t see past his own neuroses. Her best friend and confidant, Kimmie (Madeleine Waters), brags about promiscuity, then breaks down together with Minnie when faced with blowing boys they’ve just met. And – as stated above – she’s secretly having sex with Monroe, throwing any chance of responsible guidance from him out the window. So she takes charge of herself, guidance be damned, and it’s in Powley’s unflinching exuberance to make something of her life that the film earns its presentation as a comedy (at least in part). She makes choices that we know will lead nowhere good, and yet, if we can’t bring ourselves to cheer on her boldness, then neither can we bring ourselves to judge her – or even come up with choices we’d know in our hearts to be better.
But in the midst of her cheerily self-inflicted chaos, Minnie finds something special: a penchant for drawing, inspired by an unseen female cartoonist she adores (the film is based on a graphic novel of the same name by Phoebe Gloeckner, which, though recently back in print, I haven’t read). It’s not the kind of thing that Kimmie, her mom’s stoner friends, or even the tamer kids in class would find cool, but it pulsates her, and she privately keeps at what will show as genuine talent. This is used by the film as a device to mix animation with live action, with Minnie’s drawings taking life as moving cartoon cut-outs. Refreshingly, the script never undercuts this as escapism; it is simply worldview, not fantasy. Though it quickly leads the film’s visual style, the vivid color and lanky energy bringing flavor to the (intentionally) drab, dry footage of an increasingly dull reality, Heller is careful to keep it in reserve.
The cartoons are neither idealized nor flattering of their subjects, which often includes Minnie herself. All the more, then, does this provide her a positive grapple with her headspace, from body-image issues to her brazen libido. Under her skin, she knows all these are secondary to what really bothers her: the feeling that, despite so much of her carefree life spent mixing with all variety of people – and lovers – she can’t shake the awful, desperate sense that she’s lonely. Not everyone grew up in luckier circumstances than Minnie, but I’m guessing many who get to watch this film did (myself included). Does it really matter, though? It’s almost natural to feel adolescently rudderless, never sure what you’re supposed to grow into, or even what you want to grow into. There are harsh lessons that Minnie learns, borne of her choices; lessons that no one, not even a regular household, could have prepared her for, and by the end of things, we know she’s found a painful solace, held together by force of will, that will keep her whole.
This is the first feature film directed by Marielle Heller, and that floors me. A rough parallel can be drawn to 2009’s Fish Tank, a similarly-astounding, independently produced sophomore effort from Andrea Arnold that shares superficial plot elements. It’s a favorite of mine, and one of the great films of the past decade, but I might carefully admit that Heller’s achievement here is more impressive (I’ll leave an outright judgment between the films themselves for another day). The broad tonal spectrum is tightly woven, the stylistic turns are tacitly restrained, and the cast brims with unmistakable depth that we can’t break away from. Rarely do we see a director this assured on her or his first outing, and I’ll follow her next project even if it ends up as challenging a watch to me as this one was.
And it needs to be said: it’s one of the rare films directed and written by a woman, based on source material by a woman, and starring a largely female cast. That (aside from it being one of this year’s best films) it is also very easily the best comic book movie of the past few years (and acknowledged by critics as such), in a period when said medium has Hollywood in its pocket, in the same year that Fun Home dominated the Tony awards…that’s a spectacular triumph for all parties involved.
Writer and Director: Marielle Heller; Director of Photography: Brandon Trost; Editor: Marie-Héléne Dozo and Koen Timmerman; Music: Nate Heller
Starring: Bel Powley, Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgard, Madeleine Waters, Christopher Meloni
Country: United States