The Diary of a Teenage Girl – Marielle Heller (2015)

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is without doubt one of the most honest and nuanced portraits of unabashed feminine sexuality in the history of (mainstream) American film; it is probably the best, and most sex positive, portrayal of specifically adolescent female desire we have had in this country. There have, of course, been other films that treat this subject matter, such as Larry Clark’s Kids or Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, but most of those films have been perceived, often unfairly, as chronicles of threat, gritty warnings of the perils about to befall our children. In a recent positive review of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Amy Taubin compares the film to the work of Catherine Breillat in which the sexuality of girls is treated with all due honesty and without pulled punches or a fear of giving offense (that is, Taubin sees Diary as an American counterpart to such work). While I take her point, it is also the case that Breillat is a provocateur, and that films such as A Real Young Girl, 36 Fillette, and Fat Girl are transgressive avant la lettre. (Those films, devoid of such niceties as Diary‘s animated flowers and winsome heroine, are interested in serving as aggressive critiques of larger chunks of social terrain than the film before us, which functions more as a mostly gentle corrective). Which is to say, although its success with audiences is hardly assured, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is an appropriately American film, in which its strengths are also, to my taste, its limitations.

Adapted from a graphic novel of the same name by Phoebe Gloeckner (who also illustrated the RE/Search edition of J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, which I was obsessed with while in college), The Diary of a Teenage Girl chronicles the coming of age (or, more bluntly, the quest for sexual experience) of Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley), a budding 15 year old artist living in San Francisco with her divorced Mom (Kristen Wiig) and younger sister (Abby Wait) during the swinging ’70s. Mom is a semi-wreck, having recently parted ways with her (second?) husband, and Minnie’s surrogate father, Pascal (Christopher Meloni, always a treat), who now lives in New York. Mom parties too much, does drugs unabashedly in front of her kids, and is dating a semi-layabout dreamer named Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). Monroe is the object of Minnie’s sexual fascination, so when Mom suggests that he take her out drinking with him one night, as she is too tired to attend, Minnie takes advantage of the opportunity to plant the not so subtle seeds of her desire within his mind. Pretty soon, Minnie and Monroe are having an affair behind Mom’s back, which sends Minnie not into a tailspin, but on to further sexual adventuring as she satisfies curiosity while at the same time exploring the reach of her powers. She does this by, for instance, hitting on and then sexually dominating one of the boys at her school, dropping her drab nerdy wardrobe to dress up for a Rocky Horror midnight screening, and, in what she and her girlfriend both concede is a bridge too far, giving random guys in a bar blowjobs for $5 each (holding hands with each other while kneeling on the bathroom floor). Eventually Monroe starts to lose his luster (in proportion to how quickly he reveals himself to be a real person, and possibly in love with her) and Minnie, empowered by a correspondence with cartoonist, and riot grrrl touchstone, Aline Kominsky, seeks to move on – but not before Pascal gets the drift of what is happening, and the whole house of cards comes crashing down as Mom takes a listen to Minnie’s audio diaries. Minnie skirts dangerously close to leaving home for good as Mom tries to work through this revelation, but eventually things smooth over (if not for Mom, then for Minnie) and the film ends with Minnie vowing that, unlike her mother, she will never need a man to be happy.

I fully admit that I am not doing the film justice with my synopsis. It is very funny in many parts (perhaps unintentionally so at times), coming close to a non-juvenile sex comedy, and also transgressive in its own way. Indeed, the opening, which features Minnie sauntering in slow motion through a park laden with big breasted joggers and topless sunbathers, who she ogles, happily exclaiming (internally) “Wow! I just had sex!,” obviously elated at that fact, skirts close to the tropes of pornography. It would not be surprising if this libidinous teenager, comfortable in her wielding of phallic power, made male viewers equally and oppositely uncomfortable. According to Taubin’s report, one male audience member at the Sundance festival screening asked the filmmaker to address the fact that the film was “obviously about pedophilia.” (He was met with laughter from many female members of the audience). There should be little doubt that the film is not about pedophilia, as we are quite clearly inside Minnie’s head and point of view for the entirety. The film communicates this not only through the narrative structure, but by the use of Minnie’s voice-over and by bringing Minnie’s art to life on the screen, animating moments of her affective response. This is part of what sets the film apart from the work of Breillat; here, we are with Minnie all the way, and rooting for her, as we are inside her head. There is none of the distance, and irony, that Breillat often employs to question the points of view of her protagonists, even as she is sympathetic to them. (Her protagonists tend to be “unsympathetic” to begin with anyway). For instance, Diary ends with Minnie, in voice-over, rejecting her mother’s apparent need for a man, and basically saying, “This is for all the girls out there like me.” While perhaps an important political move on the part of a filmmaker trying to communicate to a particular audience, it also has the impact, and tone, of pat after-school-special messaging. A director like Breillat, even if she deployed such a device, would not allow us to forget that this “you go girl” wisdom comes from the mouth of a 15 year old; we would be left with the bitter understanding that time proves most of us, no matter how spunky, wrong. Another “problem” which could be considered a feature for an American audience is the setting. Although it adheres to the reality of the graphic novel, setting the film in the 1970s allows the director a certain license for honesty and, hence, the audience a certain distance, that setting such events in a contemporary setting would not. Yes, Minnie is a 15 year old who does drugs with her Mom and has an affair with her boyfriend, but after all, it is the 1970s, and San Francisco. The setting helps naturalize what should, rightfully, cause question, regardless of Minnie’s maturity and empowerment. The director has stated that she’d really like teenage girls to be the audience for the film, and I don’t disagree – girls need images that show their desires as normal, powerful, and their sexuality as fully their own. At the same time, where is the film that addresses these same issues for today’s teenage girl, in her own milieu? (That is, post Reagan-era sexual repression and paranoia, and post-Internet double standard of valorized exhibitionism coupled with To Catch a Predator prurience). While these issues niggle at me, they mostly do so on the level of aesthetics – I happen to dislike the rampant use of voice-over in contemporary film, and feel that directors of serious (American) films often take refuge from our present era these days. I fully recognize that on some level it sounds like I’m complaining that an apple is not an orange (or that the United States is not France… although I might plead guilty on that count). It is hard to make a work that is serious, addresses a (sadly) taboo subject like this, contains nuance, and is still a feel good, funny, and happy film that sends a message of empowerment to a population that gets far too little along those lines. On that count, Marielle Heller has done a superb job, and her film deserves to be widely seen.

Three and a half stars out of five

Paper Towns – Jake Schreier (2015)

A paper town is a fictional location inserted into a map by its maker, as a way to guard against plagiarism – if another map with the same town appears, the mapmaker will know her work has been cribbed. Adolescence is a paper town in more than a few ways. For the teenager, identity is often a paper town; a creation that marks the subject as original, one of a kind, even as it has no authentic relationship to a real psychic landscape. Identity, at that age, is often a force of will, an instance of “fake it until you make it.” As an adult, the paper town is an equally inauthentic marker of uniqueness that seeks to validate our earlier ersatz identity even as we disavow it. Yes, we say, we had no idea who we were or what we were doing, but we still stake the claim of our identity to the uniqueness of our own misadventures, even as we understand, and perhaps enjoy, that our own misadventures fit into the same mold as everyone else’s. (We take comfort in the familiarity of such stories, while also sticking to the fantastic ideal that we are unique in our sameness). Both of these conceptions of adolescent identity – the sui generis self-invention that is usually quite false, the after-the-fact recapture of that inauthenticity as the mark of authenticity (often in the case of lessons being learned) – form the substance of the film Paper Towns, adapted (with some minor changes) from the young adult novel by John Green. A seeming portrait of young love, Paper Towns is much more about how we love ourselves, or fail to, revealed through the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, who we desire, and how we got from point A to point B on the always incomplete map of our lives.

The film reveals itself to be a thriller and a mystery rather than a romance in the first shots. Recounted during a flashback voiceover (what film these days does not have a young male voice telling us how it is?), Q (short for Quentin, played by Nat Wolff) recalls his first meetings with his spitfire (or mentally unbalanced) neighbor Margo (Cara Delevingne). She is dark, sassy, older than her years, and generally enigmatic. Q is smitten. The highlight of their young romance, given short shrift by the narrative, is discovering a cadaver in a local park, the body of a recently divorced middle-aged man, gun still at his side, an apparent case of suicide. At least, so says Q, who got his information, it seems, from Margo. Margo is intrigued by this discovery, and we are intrigued that Margo is seemingly so undisturbed at the presence of the freshly dead. Flash forward a decade, and Q and Margo are in their final days of high school. Q has long carried a torch for Margo, but has also pretty much dismissed her as a possibility, as she has not spoken to him in a very long time, and is now the queen of the school, hanging out with the hot girls and dating the jocks. Yes, for those of us in the audience known as adults, Margo screams “stay away,” but Q is undeterred, bedazzled by her high style reprobate ways and wanna-be Joaquin Phoenix looks. So when Margo comes calling at Q’s window one night, needing a partner in crime for the evening (not a metaphor), Q hesitates all of 10 seconds before jumping at the opportunity. Apparently Margo’s jock boyfriend is cheating on her with one of her besties, and so now she is ready to burn her entire social circle to the ground with a night of antics that makes use of Saran Wrap, spray paint, Vasoline, and Nair. Q gets down and dirty, all to Margo’s liking, but hopes of a more permanent rekindling of the gasoline fire are doused when Margo disappears from town the next day (pretty much for the rest of the movie). Q keeps their antics a secret even as Margo’s parents (a schizo mix of blithe assuredness and smothered panic) bring in the cops, but like any good obsessive soon the world around him – his friends, his schoolwork, band practice and college – fade in relevance compared to cracking Margo’s mystery. And Margo apparently wants to be cracked, as she has left a trail of rather strained clues as to what happened to her and where she is. (This has been her modus operandi since youth, so Q has some prior training). Q plays Sherlock, eventually discovering a ratty abandoned souvenir shop that holds, no, not a meth head, but rather all the keys to where Margo went. Now fortified with the self-confidence provided to the obsessive by any shred of shaky information, Q and friends Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), along with their girlfriends, borrow Mom’s car for that short road trip from Florida to the paper town Margo has absconded to (Agloe, a fakeville just outside of Roscoe, New York). Along the way to nowhere, the teens all bond, and share a few low jinks, eventually finding the crossroads of Agloe and the abandoned barn that serves as town hall. When Margo does not appear, Ben, Radar, and co. split, pissed that Q is still huffing Margo’s fumes and yet still grasping at air. Not wanting to be late for prom, they take off, but Q, resolute, lingers. He stays at the barn as long as he can, and then drags himself into the real town, buying a bus ticket back to Florida. Low and behold, Margo happens to saunter down the main drag, and the two finally have a chance to hash it out. Margo disavows any interest in having been found – she leaves detailed clues almost completely obscured just for the fun of it. Margo claims she is in town trying to find herself (although what else she is doing there, where she is living and how she is supporting herself remain a mystery), and Q, satisfied that his love of Margo had more to do with an image he had built up in his own mind rather than with the flesh-and-blood mind gamer before him, gets on the bus and heads back to the life already mapped out for him. (Not before a lame kiss is exchanged and Margo offers that he can stay with her, doing at least a 90 degree turn from her previous disposition). Q gets back home and, like every other film made in the past 20 years, affirms that the real meaning of the journey was the time it gave him with his friends, who are the people who really matter, you know. Everyone dances at the prom, and Margo eventually goes on to be an “actress,” or something. Mmm hmm.

As a portrait of a young man mistaking the narcissistic, somewhat pathological “hot” girl for the love of his life, Paper Towns is not bad, and kind of plays like a junior version of a noir. Margo, while not an evil person, certainly is full of it, playing around with other people’s emotions while maintaining a (it must be said) very weak deniability. At the same time, Margo becomes almost mythic, or rather, a type, the representative of allure and immature desire, a stand-in for adventure and excitement that woman often represents for man in the noir narrative. (And while not fatal to Q, we have a sense that something is not quite right with Margo beyond teenage confusions, as per the opening sequence of her romping around a dead man’s body). You could rightly wonder if Margo exists at all, or is simply the fever dream of Q’s adolescence. (Yes, she exists, as everyone in school knows her, but the film diverges from the novel significantly in the end, which in the book is a group confrontation, but which in the film becomes a somewhat dream-like tête-à-tête). What remains, aside from the dross, is the aforementioned double portrait. Margo’s identity is the paper town of adolescence – not knowing herself, and with no substance to form her core, she cultivates a mystique that ensures her uniqueness, while keeping anyone intelligent enough to sniff out the cluelessness behind the mask at arm’s length. Quentin’s identity is also in name only, but his paper town is the retrospective type – his adventure with Margo is the quirky, strange tale of youthful folly that, while simply marking him as one of a million mixed up teens, also allows him to reaffirm the generic ideals and conventional life choices he subsequently makes (that friends are what matter most, that the journey is more important than the destination, that going to college rather than living as a will o’ the wisp in an abandoned barn is the right way to be). This double portrait of identity in flux, as a tale always being told and retold to ourselves, to solidify who we are and what we stand for, is the strongest part of the film. And the thriller/mystery aspect of what could have been a more straightforward slog is refreshing. All the same, in the end the movie is rather boring, like listening to a friend recount an experience in which you can spot all the embellishments and blind spots. Unlike the films of John Hughes, which it does resemble in passing, Paper Towns is not a portrayal of transition and maladaptation, but a recounting of such a period. Rather than letting the teens speak for themselves (even through an adult, as in Mr. Hughes’s work), Paper Towns, and many recent films of its ilk, uses voice over and a narrator as a way for ideology to speak through the film, in the guise of an adult recounting the past. What makes Paper Towns tolerable is that the ideology herein speaking is also cobbling together an identity, and has blind spots of its own. In its shaky quest to make us understand the risks of self-deception, in attempting to establish how we become what we are, Paper Towns also makes us wonder – who is kidding who here?

Two and a half stars out of five

Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl – Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (2015)

It is the thickest part of the season of my discontent. On one side of me there lies a geriatric robot using himself, gallantly, as a human torpedo to keep the future safe for dragons on HBO. On the other side, there is the formerly formidable Vincent D’onofrio delivering a more compelling facsimile of Orson Welles than he did in Ed Wood. I, feeling unhappy that my blazon of filmic revelation had fallen temporarily silent, tried to thread the needle, and so ventured forth into the unknown night that is yet another tale of a chipmunk face, a cancer girl, and a detached black youth (tasked, as ever in Hollywoodland, with keeping it real). I entered hoping to laugh, to cry, or at least to fake it until I made it. I left unchanged, untouched, my memory of what transpired like a koan, written upside down in fine grain during a sandstorm. Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl is ostensibly a serio-comic tearjerker, a product of the superbrain that guided eight episodes of Glee and one episode of The Carrie Diaries into port. I do not mean to slander Mr. Gomez-Rejon, for he has assuredly accomplished more in the way of putting images before the eyes of the public than have I. All the same, this film felt like a half-baked TV leftover, a drooper episode of Gilmore Girls written whilst on quaaludes. It aims neither high, nor low, but for the distinctly average; indeed, it feels as if written by a computer algorithm that churned through Rushmore and The Fault in Our Stars, averaging out the highs and lows, retaining the twee and sappy, and adding a black person. (Perhaps it is already ahead of the output of Wes Anderson in that department).

So what happens here? An “I’m charming because of my fake humility and fraudulent low self-esteem” narrator, the titular chipmunk-faced Me (Thomas Mann, also known as Greg, and not known as the creator of the Magic Mountain) is brow-beaten by his mother (Connie Britton) into spending time with a dying girl (Olivia Cooke, also known as Rachel) for what reason we cannot comprehend. (Mom is apparently a knee-jerk beeotch, dedicated to her son’s unhappiness). In requisite ironic deadpan fashion, Greg and Rachel trade lame jokes, and lame revelations, all the while slowly forming that dread connection known as friendship. Rachel has cancer. Greg makes insipid parodies of Hollywood films, with titles like Death in Tennis and Pooping Tom. He mimics Werner Herzog’s at this point played out monologue about the horrors of the jungle. He hangs out with Earl, who is his silent partner in auteurship and not a friend, but a “coworker.” As Rachel gets sicker, Greg and Earl pretend to be forced to regale her with their cinematic output (is there a connection here?). Soon, a hot girl that Greg likes discovers his secret life as a cineaste, and guilts him into making a movie explicitly for the dying girl. Greg, lame loafer that he is (I know, he is supposedly dragging his feet because he knows his tribute will kill her which, SPOILER, it does) hems, haws, and draws it all out until the last minute. As per usual given algorithmic averages, the film hinges on a scene where Rachel and Greg have a falling out, she wanting to be left alone to quit chemo and die, he wanting her to fight, fight to the end for his sake, all the while they both attempt to squeeze as much liquid out of their faces as they can. (They mostly fail). After this, Greg falls deeper into doldrums (if that is possible) and Rachel disappears from the scene, to be replaced, finally, by Earl (RJ Cyler) the only thing with life that we can see. (Perhaps the sequel will rightfully be titled Fuck Y’all – I’m Earl). The hot girl keeps hounding Greg to finish his movie before Rachel dies, and spurred on, I guess, by his continual demurrals, she asks him to the prom. He accepts, but fakes her out, at the last moment taking the limo curbside at the hospital, invading Rachel’s deathbed, and forcing her to go gently into that good night to the accompaniment of his last masterpiece (scored somehow, as is all of Greg’s life, by Eno). They make up in a way, she goes comatose, eyes wide open, during the credits, and Greg lumbers on into the future, probably making Hollywood films just like this one. (Earl, too cool and embarrassed to really be part of the movie, smokes another cigarette at her wake).

Yes, just like Greg, this movie is a hand lettered love note of insincerity. Greg pretends to have low self-esteem, to be humble and shy, but he is really, like Herzog in his jungle, a seething pit of self-regard, the reflecting mirror being the real death in front of him. Rachel, playing the role of witless helpmate, convinces Greg of his worth (that is, feeds his secretly monstrous ego) and encourages him to apply to Pitt. He gets accepted, and then, after he slips into his funk (triggered, no doubt, by having to make some real art that matters), gets unaccepted, as his grades slip into the funk along with him. His secretly controlling shrew of a mother goes apeshit (masking it brilliantly, just as Greg masks his truth) but no worries; dying girl spends her last moments on earth penning Penn a little death note asking them to take him back, explaining that his lack of effort was her fault, the price paid for friending the doomed. Yes, Greg’s career in sociopathy is capped by this new identity, as an auteur of fluff given weight by the departed soul of another (his film, an avant-garde homage to the dying girl’s pillows, mirrors the climax of Olivier Assayas’s portrait of another failed director salvaging a final project, 1996’s Irma Vep). The only one who sees through this charade (besides your truly, of course) is Earl, the existential hero of the film. (Cyler’s acting fits the reality of the script as no other performance does). Like the Eno score whose ambience gives the film what emotional weight it has, Earl at first seems like mere background, but gradually becomes the substantial center. No more than an observer, buffeted by the winds of chance, Earl acts when and where acting is needed: in the films du Greg; as witness to the narrative of faux suffering played out between Greg and Rachel; and, in a few key moments, as the bearer of reality’s burden (as when he fells Greg with a punch to the gut, an encounter which Greg, typically, describes as “getting into a fight”). Earl has no family other than an older brother who smokes blunts and sits on the porch with his pit bull; he has no motivation except to eat the food others proffer him; he has no anger, and no resentment, toward the pathetic role he has been dealt. Indeed, he silently revels in the naked absurdity of his position, forced to bear witness to the film’s (and by extension all of our) white lies. Earl could have rightfully popped a cap in everyone’s forehead, but he understands they, and we, are not worth the effort. He is merely biding his time, waiting for his own starring moment, which will be years from now, after all these caricatured cuttlefish munchers and pâté eaters have fallen into obscurity. (Is it coincidence that his is the only name enshrined in the title?) At that future moment, Earl will emerge as the true auteur, not of a script as woeful and drained of effort as this, but of the secret film that lies hidden within, the reality of which the likes of Greg, and our dear director, could not bother to imagine. Perhaps in his dying moments, Greg will realize that it was Earl all along – Earl who neutered Greg’s films while making them possible, Earl who pulled the strings to ensure Greg only got into Pitt, Earl who stood tall as the true moose that stomped Greg’s chipmunk face into the ground again and again. As Greg drops his snow globe to the floor in his basement apartment Xanadu, what name will play upon his lips? The name of Earl.

Two stars out of five