Arts Review, Movies

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

The Diary of a Teenage Girl featured image

Marielle Heller, director & script based on the graphic novel/autobiography by Phoebe Gloeckner

Starring: Bel Powley (Minnie Goetze), Alexander Skarsgard (Monroe), Kristen Wiig (Charlotte, her mother), Christopher Meloni (Pascal MacCorkill), Abigail Wait (Gretel), Madeleine Waters (Kimmie)

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” These words, written by L.P. Hartley, over 60 years ago in the novel The Go-Between echo when thinking about Marielle Heller’s film adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s controversial graphic novel/partial memoir Diary of a Teenage Girl.

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Things were different back in the Sixties and Seventies especially if you were living in San Francisco or New York. Now it seems nearly impossible to imagine a story without dire consequences about a sexual relationship between a 15-year old girl and a man twice her age, who is her mother’s lover. Yet, that’s what happens to “little” Minnie (Bel Rowley) and Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), who is not only older but impossibly taller than his secret girlfriend.

Minnie is living in the chaos of Seventies San Francisco. The hippies have gone but remnants of their culture are everywhere; so are burgeoning gay and punk scenes. Her mom Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) works at a library until she’s fired; then, they seem to live off of air until one of her ex-husbands comes through with a check. Everyone smokes marijuana and drinks including Minnie—and no one opposes it.

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The film’s tone is struck in the opening scene when we see Minnie walking gleefully through a park filled with local hipsters (ex-beats, hippies and punks) while she thinks, “I just had sex. Holy [email protected]#%!” No self-recrimination here.

Minnie is besotted by the whole idea of sex. And it doesn’t hurt that she’s having it with her mom’s lover. Like most mothers and daughters, Minnie and Charlotte are locked in a complex rivalry—but few have taken it as far as this duo does in Diary of a Teenage Girl.

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Minnie isn’t all about sex. She also wants to be a commix artist. Her idol is Aline Kominsky, the writer/illustrator and wife of R. Crumb; both are now heralded as the fore-parents/partners who inspired the graphic novel movement. The film toggles between Minnie’s drawings, voice-over narrations, which are her tape-recorded diaries and her life, which consists of confessionals and parties with her best friend Kimmie, fights with Charlotte and sex with Monroe.

Diary of a Teenage Girl is bound to be a controversial film. Minnie’s past is truly a foreign country to many people now. But Marielle Heller has fashioned a lively, emotional film out of Phoebe Gloeckner’s book. It may say things that people don’t want to hear about adolescent sexuality but the film and book are based on one person’s life experiences. This film is certainly not for everybody but a niche crowd—the ones who love quirky films beloved by the Sundance Film Festival audience—will go to see it. And love it.

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

Tune in to hear Marc Glassman’s Art Reviews
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