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
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
as Monroe, the 35-year-old who willingly jumps into an affair with
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,
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
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.
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
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.