Aug 26, 2015

The Diary Of A Teenage Girl

We live in a culture that is more concerned with passing judgment than with dealing with complicated emotional issues and their endless varieties of nuance. People prefer to hector their self-righteous opinions than deal with human messiness. When it comes to female sexuality, women may like to have sex as much as men do, but we are not allowed to admit it. A man can boast of his sexual conquests and feel perfectly at ease appeasing his sexual urges, but a woman who screams to the winds that she loves to shag is branded a slut or a nympho.
Thus, a movie that challenges such puritanical stances is rather refreshing. I can't name a recent American movie starring a sexually unabashed and unpunished female protagonist. Can you?
This provocative film by Marielle Heller, based on the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, clashes with the culture at large by telling the story of 15-year old and horny Minnie, (the extraordinary Bel Powley), who has a clumsy, painful and inappropriate affair with her mother's boyfriend, Monroe (an effectively spineless Alexander Skarsgård). Since it is Minnie's diary, it is her point of view, which true to teenage reality, is inconsistent to say the least. At times, Minnie seems mature and well-rounded for her age. She is sophisticated, smart, precocious and droll, but when it comes to handling the emotional fallout of seducing a 35 year-old man, she still is just a child, and she acts like one, floundering in love.
It does not help that the adults in her life act worse than unruly children, and that they all happen to live in the San Francisco of the late seventies, with the counterculture run amok. Minnie's clueless, pseudo-liberated mom (Kristen Wiig) parties hard and snorts coke in front of her two daughters. Trying to be hip, she encourages the awkward Minnie to show more leg, get a boyfriend, etc. For instant karma, Minnie does exactly that with her mom's boyfriend. Monroe, he just goes with the flow. He is not the feral predator one expects, but he is amoral, spineless, immature, selfish and stupid. Minnie is way out of her depth, which is what coming of age stories are about. She may think she is empowered, but she is blown apart by the dynamics of the affair, a secret adventure in which she does not really have much say, even though she initiated it and fully consents.
This is not a story of an evil predator against a virginal young victim. The inadequacy and the inequity of the relationship are disturbing and painful. At one point, when Monroe tries to break up with Minnie, she throws a tantrum and he accuses her of manipulating him. He is less capable of handling himself than she is, but she feels totally powerless, because as a young girl, she is.
Powley, who is in her early twenties, has a pitch-perfect sense of teenage self-importance (Minnie records her diary on tape for posterity) as well as of Minnie's inexperience and her emotional hunger. She and Skarsgård are marvelously wrong together.
What saves Minnie, besides her considerable pluck, is that she is becoming an artist. She draws and admires Aline Kominsky (R. Crumb's wife and muse) and somehow emerges through this tough, life-changing experience, with a clear sense of purpose. Her drawings are animated and they are edgy and completely appropriate for the movie. Heller directs her actors with great skill and does not shy away from messy, uncomfortable emotions. She leaves the judging to the audience.

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