Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Review by Pamela Zoslov

I had a strange feeling while watching THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL that someone had, in fact, read my diary and put parts of it onscreen. No, I did not have an affair with my mother's boyfriend, nor did I do most of the things Minnie Goetze, the 15-year-old heroine of the movie, did in 1970s San Francisco. But I did once write a letter to Aline Kominsky-Crumb, the talented cartoonist who is married to the famous Robert Crumb, telling her how much I admired and identified with her hilarious confessional comics.

Aline wrote back to me too, a friendly and encouraging letter, just as she wrote to Minnie, and apparently to Minnie's creator, writer and artist Phoebe Gloeckner, whose 2002 confessional graphic novel is the basis of this film. Clearly Kominsky-Crumb's work is captivating, and she is really nice to her fans.

This film, you should know, is not for general audiences. I'm not exactly sure whom it is for, because its subject matter — an adolescent girl has a sexual relationship with her mother's 35-year-old layabout boyfriend — is at best uncomfortable and at worst, considering the girl initiates the sex and enjoys it, scandalous. It's Lolita from the nymphet's perspective, without moralizing or significant consequence. It is explicit in theme and language, disconcertingly so.

Minnie's story is based on the early experiences of Gloeckner, who had an affair with her mom's beau and, decades later, drew on her teenage diaries to write the autobiographical illustrated novel.

The book struck a chord with some readers and was described somewhere, grandiosely, as “one of the bleakest and most brilliant books ever written about growing up female.” Illustrated in Gloeckner's hyper-realistic style, it's stark and raw and unnerving.

Several filmmakers approached Gloeckner to adapt the book, but she didn't trust anyone's “vision.” Finally, Marielle Heller approached her about making it into a play. “I thought that was so insane and I couldn't imagine it,” Gloeckner told an interviewer, “so I said yes.” Now comes the film version, a Sundance hit starring 23-year-old British actress Bel Powley as Minnie, Kristen Wiig as her distracted mom, Charlotte, Abigail Wait as Minnie's younger sister, Gretel, and Alexander Skarsgård as Monroe, the 35-year-old who willingly jumps into an affair with 15-year-old Minnie.

Minnie is a girl with soulful eyes and extremely unflattering bangs. She is also a very talented sketch artist. Her mom and stepdad are divorced, and she and her sister only occasionally see her stepdad, Pascal (Christopher Meloni), a lofty academic who long ago split with her mom. Mom Charlotte works in a library and spends her evenings partying and doing coke with friends, including Monroe, her good-looking, lazy, beer-guzzling boyfriend.

For purposes of the film, Minnie records her diary into an old-fashioned tape recorder she stashes under her bed, where it's certain to be discovered,  despite her stern written warnings to one and all. She describes herself as having been “an ugly child” whose “looks had not improved significantly.” Losing her virginity to Monroe, she says, was “a lucky break.” Monroe was “attracted by my youthfulness.” Minnie is naïve and desperate for love. “Is this what it feels like to have somebody love you?” She asserts, with satisfaction, “I think this makes me officially an adult.” On a crowded bus, she narrates explicit details about the sex she's having with Monroe, her tape recorder on her lap and old ladies looking at her disapprovingly.

Monroe, for his part, is ambivalent about the affair, but not as much as you might expect. Occasionally he has a fluttering of conscience and tries to break it off, only to have Minnie crawl back into his bed. She falls in love with him, even though he treats her rather shabbily, and at one point, after they drop acid together, he declares he loves her, too. Sexualized by this premature experience, Minnie starts seducing everyone, and invents stories about lovers (“a black guy with a really big dick!”) to make Monroe jealous. Meanwhile Charlotte, proud and haughty, is none the wiser. Charlotte is a far more malignant character in the book; she's softened a bit for the movie, and Wiig, an outstanding actress, navigates the nuances beautifully.

Minnie and her friends inhabit a never-never land of parental neglect. She skips school to sleep with Monroe, and she and her best girlfriend Kimmie (Austin Lyon) delve into drugs, hanging out at drag bars, exploring group sex and bisexuality, even turning tricks in a bar bathroom for kicks. (Low moment: Minnie and Kimmie jumping on the bed to Iggy Pop's music, and an excited Kimmie licks the crotch of an Iggy poster. Ah, those teenage days of fellating posters.) West Coast events and fads of the '70s, like the Patty Hearst case, Quaaludes,  THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, and est training, are woveninto the narrative.

To some viewers, the lack of real consequences (disease, pregnancy) of Minnie's youthful libertinism represents a kind of feminist empowerment. The film has been praised far and wide as real and true and brave. It wallows in taboo sex in the same way the substandard Lena Dunham TV show Girls does, denying that it's trying to titillate and challenging viewers not to turn away. A frequent complaint about the book is that it is focused too much on sex and not enough on Minnie's artistic development, school life or anything else. This is more problematic for a film, a much more confrontational medium. There's no turning the page to avoid the squeamish scenes. It's hard to imagine viewers, many of them parents of girls, sitting still while Monroe tells teenage Minnie, who is playfully sucking his fingers at a restaurant, “You're making me hard” and invites her to feel his crotch as evidence.

Minnie's, or Phoebe's, adult perspective enters the story as Minnie realizes that Monroe is "a dirty old man" and thinks to herself, "I'm better than you, you son of a bitch." And she is, by virtue of her youth and naivete, but only marginally.

The film is technically accomplished. Minnie's misadventures and reflections are illustrated by underground-comic-style drawings, moving penises and all, animated by Sara Gunnarsdottir. Aline Kominsky-Crumb, whom Minnie spots signing books in a comic shop, contributes drawings and spoken advice to Minnie. It's interesting that Kominsky-Crumb is cited as an artistic role model. Kominsky-Crumb's comics are confessional but deeply self-critical (one collection was titled “Self-Loathing Comics”) and hilarious. “Bunch,” as she calls herself, lampoons her crass Jewish family and her younger self in broadly comedic drawings that are seemingly primitive but technically brilliant. Her writing, too, is funny and relatable. By contrast, Gloeckner's work is mopey, literal and solipsistic.

I think one problem is that Gloeckner is trying to revive an underground-comics tradition of wild, taboo sex and massive drug consumption that even in its day was controversial (hence “underground”). In the early '70s, Robert Crumb, who later married Aline Kominsky, could publish a story like “Honeybunch Kaminski in The Drug-Crazed Runaway,” a wildly explicit tale in which the teenage heroine leaves home, gets molested by a “dyke cop,” is thrown in jail, and has sex with an older armed revolutionary. Certainly in 2015, when sandwich spokesman Jared Fogle faces public opprobrium and jail time for having sex with underage girls, a story like this doesn't look right on the screen, especially in a live-action coming-of-age movie. Crumb's drawings were outrageous, but he didn't illustrate his crazy yarns with photographs.  2 3/4 out of 4 stars.

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