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.