Monday, September 7, 2015

Diary of a Teenage Girl

DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL          B            
USA  (102 mi)  2015  ‘Scope  d:  Marielle Heller                  Official site     

For the girls, when they have grown.              —book and movie dedication

The title pretty much sums up this film, as it is a bit like peeping into your teenage daughter’s diary, where you might be surprised and even shocked at what you discover.  There’s a reason parents or siblings aren’t supposed to invade one’s personal privacy, as diaries are not meant for the eyes of others, but instead provide an outlet for the aspiring author, providing autobiographical documentation of one’s thoughts and feelings, which are hard enough for that individual alone to understand.  But this film shares its contents willingly, allowing the world to take a glimpse inside the mind and heart of a young teenage girl as she explores her budding sexuality and her first great love, where her life becomes an explosion of hormones and emotions, often unable to separate one from the other.  Set in San Francisco in 1976, the story concerns a childhood with no boundaries, where the adult figures are so wrapped up in their own worlds that their children are free to do whatever they want.  There is an ick factor to some of this that might creep some people out, as it doesn’t hide the darker elements, but it’s presented through the sunny disposition of the girl who is wildly enthusiastic about sharing her personal experiences, where it’s all bathed in a washed-out light, giving the subject a sepia-toned look of nostalgia, as if we’re sifting through old family photograph albums, much like Robert Altman insisted upon for the look of McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), though that was 35 mm film while this is all captured on digital.  Nonetheless 15-year old Minnie (Bel Powley) sets the tone from the outset, declaring through voiceover, “I had sex today…Holy shit!”  This comes as she’s walking happily through Golden Gate Park, smiling at the world around her, filled with picnickers, couples kissing, or people playing with their dogs, where life is good and all seems right with the world.  Only afterwards do we realize she’s talking about her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård in Scandinavian reserve mode), a man in his 30’s who offered little resistance to her persistent curiosity about sex.  While she may have initiated the action, Monroe obviously didn’t have the good sense to say no, apparently still suffering from the lingering effects of a 60’s counterculture haze where the narcissistic culture was defined by the catchphrase “love the one you’re with.”   Before people get too judgmental about this, consider the thoughts of Sheila O’Malley from the Ebert site, The Diary of a Teenage Girl - Roger Ebert

There’s a difference between portraying behavior and endorsing behavior, but often movies and filmmakers get caught up in crossfires of controversy and confusion. Did “Wolf of Wall Street” endorse misogyny or was it a portrayal of a world where misogyny ran rampant? Did “Zero Dark Thirty” endorse torture? Or was it a story told from within the community that did not question torture’s use? When 2009’s “Observe and Report” came out, a controversy ensued about one scene where Seth Rogen’s character has sex with Anna Faris, who is so wasted she is clearly unable to consent. The scene is disturbing, but it ends with a huge laugh, and therein was the problem. Did “Observe and Report” endorse date rape then? Where you come down on this issue is dependent on a lot of different factors, personal taste, political/social opinions and your feelings on what role art should play in our culture. Some feel art needs to be inspirational or educational: Films have a responsibility to show the consequences of bad behavior. Films should portray the world as it should be, not as it is. A film is dangerous if it does not point an arrow at bad behavior telegraphing “Don’t do this.” There aren’t any wrong answers, but the problem comes when the same set of criteria is used for all works of art. The purpose of the old ABC Afterschool Specials was to warn kids about the dangers that were out there. But are all films to be judged with the same set of rules? Context matters. “Diary of a Teenage Girl” is bound to stir up some controversy along these lines. Does it endorse a 35-year-old man sleeping with a 15-year-old? Shouldn’t she or he be made to “pay” for it in order to show the wrong-ness of the situation? But that opening scene, showing Minnie strolling through the sunshine, smiling to herself, loving the world, sets the mood and tells us the film’s attitude towards the story that is about to unfold.

The story originates with comics artist Phoebe Gloeckner who began cartooning at the age of 12, influenced by her mother’s friends, which included San Francisco underground artists Robert Crumb and his wife Aline Kominsky, also Diane Noomin and her husband Bill Griffith (apparently couples that draw together stay together), and others, where one of her early influences was the comic book series Twisted Sisters by Noomin and Kominsky, which led to her own semi-autobiographical (though described as fiction) underground anthologies that were published in Wimmen’s Comix, Weirdo, Young Lust, and Twisted Sisters, featuring explicit subject matter, including graphic sex and drug use, where underground art imposes no boundaries, essentially viewing art is limitless.  As revealed in Terry Zwigoff’s brilliant documentary Crumb (1994), where depression and suicide were prevalent in his family history, R. Crumb was the least tormented in a severly dysfunctional family, where art as a therapeutic mechanism was the saving grace that may have kept him alive.  Having grown up in that culture, Gloeckner received a master’s degree in medical illustration from the University of Texas, which vastly improved her technical skills.  In 2002 she wrote her own graphic novel, The Diary of a Teenage Girl:  An Account in Words and Pictures, depicting the often confused and troubled life of a young teenager Minnie Goetz, a recurring alter-ego character who had appeared in her previous comics, where in her own words, “Although I am the source of Minnie, she cannot be me — for the book to have real meaning, she must be all girls, anyone.”  According to Whitney Joyner, an editor at Seventeen magazine and a frequent contributor to Salon, March 15, 2003, "Not your mother’s comic book":

For the past 27 years, Gloeckner has been one of the premier alternative cartoonists, if not the most prolific. She’s also one of the most explicit: Her first collection of comics and illustrations, 1998’s “A Child’s Life and Other Stories,” was confiscated by British and French customs officials who deemed it pornographic. Their main complaint: a panel of a young Minnie, Hello Kitty diary by her side, about to give a blow job to a much older man.

“Diary of a Teenage Girl,” published late last year, continues the story of Minnie, a precocious and insecure 15-year-old growing up in San Francisco in the late 1970s. Living with a mother who fills the house with her friends and their pot smoke, wine glasses and coke lines, Minnie craves love and attention. Hungry for experience, she begins a tortured affair with the first man who notices her: Monroe, her mother’s boyfriend. Hoping to impress him, and experimenting with her newfound sexual knowledge, Minnie starts to pick up strangers in Golden Gate Park and revels in the lecherous stares of older men. (“I really want to get laid right now,” reads an early entry. “I don’t know if I’ve made that clear — I really love getting fucked.”) After expulsion from various private schools, she runs away to Polk Street, where young gay boys and trannies hang out, and where drugs abound. Eventually, she falls in with Tabatha, a troubled junkie who shoots Minnie up with speed and heroin and prostitutes her for drugs.

In form alone, it’s a groundbreaking work: Minnie’s diary entries intermingle with illustrations; comics move the narrative along. It’s also one of the most brutally honest, shocking, tender and beautiful portrayals of growing up female in America. This diary is no cautionary tale, no “Go Ask Alice.” Minnie is achingly real, and — despite her out-there explorations with drugs and sex — incredibly easy to relate to. She loves Janis Joplin and R. Crumb and science and eggs and the color purple; she spends her allowance on candy; she bullies her little sister.

There’s a reason why Minnie is so realized: like most of Gloeckner’s work, “Diary” is based on her own life.

Director Marielle Heller grew up in San Francisco during the 1980’s, while actress Bel Powley was raised in England almost two decades later, yet both were drawn to Gloeckner’s sexually charged protagonist, as movies tend to objectify women in sexual situations, where they are usually seen as the object of desire.  Fittingly, the great Spanish director Luis Buñuel’s final film was entitled THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (1977).  Yet this film turns the tables, allowing the audience to see a girl’s point of view, complete with her gnawing uncertainty about how to act on her sexual impulses.  In her late 20’s, Heller was given Gloeckner’s book as a Christmas gift from her sister, claiming she’s never connected to a character so much.  In an interview with Todd Jorgenson from D magazine, August 20, 2015, Marielle Heller on Filling the Void For Coming-of-Age Movies About Female Sexuality, Heller points out “I had been relating to male protagonists my whole life, and I had been relating to young men in coming-of-age stories.  To have a young woman who was so intelligent, so curious, so brave, so flawed, who was like my Holden Caulfield, I just wanted to bring that to the screen.  I wanted future generations of women to have that character to look at.”  Listed at #31 in the Rolling Stone magazine 2014 poll "Drawn Out: The 50 Best Non-Superhero Graphic Novels", Heller initially adapted the book for a New York off-Broadway theatrical production in 2010, "Theater Review: The Diary of a Teenage Girl - Me and My Hormones, Raging in the 1970s", which was her first effort at streamlining the story, moving the work to the Sundance Institute for a 2015 screen adaptation that eliminates much of the lurid detail of living in the streets, instead becoming a frank exploration of Minnie’s artistic and sexual awakening, where much of her interior imagination is reflected by her own expressive animated drawings (via animator Sara Gunnarsdottir) that share the screen along with a painfully honest series of tape recorded diary entries.  Living with her chain-smoking, pot loving, alcohol swigging single mother (Kristen Wiig), Minnie is starved for love and affection, despite being present at these wild parties where she’s free to partake, afterwards spending nearly all her time alone in her room decorated wall-to-wall with pictures, including a shirtless Iggy Pop and Janis Joplin posters, while impulsively losing her virginity to Monroe, a sluggish layabout with no apparent ambition, a likable loser who suddenly turns sweet, that happens to be the first man who pays her any attention.  Even if it’s the wrong kind of attention, causing a great deal of internal confusion, it changes her mental outlook, as it gives her something to look forward to, which she excitedly reveals in her diaries, “Everything looks totally different to me now.”  Suddenly her pent-up anxieties and adolescent insecurities have a sense of direction and a purpose — namely getting laid, which she does frequently, even while realizing it’s a misguided idea.      

While there are parallels with Andrea Arnold’s FISH TANK (2009), a wonderfully conceived social realist drama about another aggressive 15-year old’s inappropriate sexual behavior with her mother’s boyfriend, an early introduction to none other than Michael Fassbender, but that film, with an even more atrocious mother, is drenched in an economic stranglehold of bleakness, where there’s literally no way out of the rathole they call home, where the larger purpose is revealing unsparing truths about desperate people struggling to survive brutally harsh conditions while leading particularly empty lives.  While that film seethes with emotional deprivation, Heller adds a lightness of tone that for some might recall Todd Solendz’s HAPPINESS (1998), a somewhat blissful take on human misery, where each subsequent sequence is bathed in overly oppressive artificial light, a satiric contradiction in terms that degenerates into cheap provocation.  Perhaps it’s the colorful fantasy animation sketches and dreamlike diary entries that soften the edginess of the subject matter that remains raw and disturbing, but the term statutory rape and the subsequent waves of guilt, shame, and emotional trauma involved (including, perhaps years of therapy) are never mentioned, as it remains a somewhat optimistic, coming-of-age story seen almost exclusively through Minnie’s impressionable eyes.  To that end it may be a fantasy, but it’s her story.  Heller walks a fine line between her youthful exuberance and the discomforting behavior, accentuating the swirling emotions racing through her body, where she’s not so staggeringly good-looking as Sue Lyon in LOLITA (1962), who remains under a constant male gaze throughout, so the film instead accentuates her unusual intelligence and constantly shifting point of view, exemplified by the ease and naturalness of Powley’s performance, as she literally carries the film.  Sympathetic at one moment, a sly fox in the next, she effortlessly captures the full range of emotions associated with adolescent sexuality, including the hunger for sex, the happiness associated with being appreciated for the first time, which she can’t help but share with her best friend Kimmie (Madeleine Waters), even imagining herself as an animated 50-foot woman, but also the self-loathing that comes with the dysfunctional territory.  Skarsgård’s low key emotional motor allows Minnie to remain the pursuer, giving her the space needed to experience her first crush, which is no doubt flattering to him, where they share a vitally needed sexual chemistry, but it also allows her free reign to pursue other interests, like a developing fascination with Aline Kominsky, her new comic book role model that she emulates with her drawings, actually developing a rapport through letters.  When it all comes to a crushing end, however, as it inevitably does, she’s devastated and hurt, and gets a little crazy initially, where she and her suddenly sober mother both freak out.  But to her credit she remains resolute and refuses to be a victim, chalking it all up to experience as she starts a new chapter in her life, taking immediate control by announcing “Maybe it’s not about being loved by someone else.”  While it comes off a bit like a cinematic girl manifesto, telegraphing it’s intent from the outset, it’s presented without judgment or exploitation and remains a performance-driven film where the acting throughout is excellent.  Much like Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (Bande de Filles) (2014), these films written and directed by women fill a needed void in a traditionally male dominated industry. 

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