Gloeckner’s comics make a sharp, ambitious dramedy
MUSIC by Jorge Ignacio Castillo
Coming-of-age movies are tricky. They usually take the easy way out, depicting teenagers as hormone-fueled idiots slow to learn staggeringly obvious life lessons. But at their best, movies about adolescents have insights even teens would have a hard time articulating.
This has been a good year for coming-of-age movies. Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, Dope and Mistress America are all compelling and sometimes visceral tales of growing pains.
And The Diary of a Teenage Girl? It’s the most challenging of the bunch.
The Diary Of A Teenage Girl is an adaptation of artist Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 quasi-fictionalized cartoon-and-prose autobiography (Gloeckner previously covered similar territory with her ferocious 1998 comic, A Child’s Life And Other Stories). The film doesn’t blink at the unsavory aspects of the comic, such as drug use and, er, the sexual relationship between the 15-year-old lead and her mother’s boyfriend.
Minnie (star-making turn by actor Bel Powley) is anxiety personified. She’s having a hard time fitting in at school where she’s a virtual outcast. Her main source of distress (at least as she articulates it to herself) is the fact she’s a virgin. And the swinging, sex-soaked ’70s San Francisco setting that her drug-dabbling mom (Kristen Wiig) partakes of sure doesn’t help Minnie’s feelings of inadequacy.
But Minnie’s mother has a dimwitted but manipulative boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), for whom the teen has a major crush. An ambiguous, flirty rapport quickly screws itself up into a full-blown affair, causing the equivalent of a nuclear detonation inside the girl’s head.
Minnie and Monroe’s relationship is a terrible, terrible idea, but nevertheless the teen’s self-esteem soars. Suddenly, her love and talent for drawing is a possible career path, and Minnie begins a part-real, part-imaginary correspondence with underground cartoonist Aline Kominsky-Crumb.
Minnie also comes to the (at that age) world-shattering realization that her parents aren’t just flawed, they can be astoundingly wrong about things. Her mother, for example, seems to believe validation can only come from men. Minnie quickly learns better.
Diary does a great job mapping the protagonist’s state of mind, partly thanks to the intermittent eruptions of on-screen animated drawings. Midway through the film, Minnie’s maturity blows past Monroe’s and she essentially becomes the adult. The complexities of their changing relationship, legal and otherwise, are shown warts and all by first-time director Marielle Heller, who also adapted Gloeckner’s book for the screen.
Bel Powley is a hell of a find. Besides looking very much like comic book Minnie/real-life young Gloeckner, she embodies every change the character goes through organically. It’s a smart, brave and multidimensional performance. Even the way she walks in a given scene is expressive. Same goes for Kristen Wiig, who has persisted on the indie route following Bridesmaids. As Minnie’s mom, Wiig must balance the roles of single mother, girlfriend and party girl. She’s far from perfect but hardly a monster.
Alexander Skarsgård is more problematic. His performance is fine (particularly when Monroe starts to fall apart), but the former True Blood fanger might be too handsome for the role. This can be distracting — the character in the comic book was good looking but not male-model hot. Also, Skarsgård is so predatory at the beginning of the relationship that his later neediness is hard to believe.
As for the built-in creepiness factor? Well, what are you going to do — this is based on a true story, after all. Besides, The Diary of a Teenage Girl depicts its protagonist with an agency that only becomes stronger as the story unfolds and it’s too smart to rub its feminism on audience’s faces. This is a disturbing yet honest and even entertaining story.
In most countries, The Diary of a Teenage Girl has been deemed inappropriate for teens under 18. That’s stupid. Do yourself and your teen a favour, and go regardless. It’s got more substance than all the American Pie knock-offs combined.