Once in a blue moon, there will be a film that comes along that reminds me why I love cinema in the first place. A movie like this can present profound, unique things in a way that you can’t find in reality. It can use its own little world to show the things we didn’t think about in ways we couldn’t even imagine. At cinemas best, Boyhood can capture what it means for people to simply live life and Gravity can show us the deep heartbreak within us all using the vastness of space. The Diary of a Teenage Girl much like Inside Out earlier this year lands into this prestigious category. This is a film that speaks to its audience with such an incredible honesty and beautiful originality that I think it will reach out to every person of any age who goes to see it.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl focuses on Minnie (Bel Powley), a 15 year old, aspiring cartoonist living in San Francisco in the mid 70’s. She stays with her younger sister Gretel and her charming but deeply flawed single mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig). After she loses her virginity with her mom’s current boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), she believes that she has finally become an adult. What follows is Minnie’s exploration through drugs, sex and art as she tries to find an identity within her newly found maturity.
Earlier this summer, Paper Towns and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl showed us quite clearly what can happen when a young adult story goes wrong. At its worst, these movies pander to their audience and give them fake, hollow insight that sounds pretty but leads nowhere. There is such a huge market for these movies from the previously mentioned ones to the recent pseudo sci-fi flicks like The Host or The Maze Runner that if often feels like studios are trying to relate to its audiences without going the extra mile to deliver something of meaning and quality to them. The best examples are often the ones that either don’t direct themselves at that sort of audience like Whiplash or Inside Out or don’t even talk about growing up like Dope or The Hunger Games. That said, it’s nothing short of a miracle when I can find a film like this that for once was made for teenagers and doesn’t feel like its talking down or blatantly lying to its viewers of that age.
I don’t lie when I say that this movie refuses to patronize its audience. I was legitimately shocked with a few of the things this movie was able to show without an NC-17 rating. It says something about how graphic this movie can get when it got the highest possible rating of 18 on UK’s movie rating system. The movie shows and discusses a lot of things from intimacy to consent to experimentation that teens really need to know about but probably won’t get from the light, soft fare they’re provided by a big budget studio. Among the things this movie does, it has the balls to show abstinence only education as a joke. You can teach it all you want, but eventually a lot of teenagers are going to get curious and they’re going to want to try some things out. This naïve, crazy search for the meaning of sex is something a lot of teens go through and yet a lot of movies are prudish and try to shy away from it because no, who do you think you are to try to corrupt the youth?
The Diary of a Teenage goes after this area in a lot of ways from the bizarre relationship between Minnie and Monroe as well as Minnie’s experimentation with a variety of other people. And I don’t want to make it sound like it glorifies this as well. Even though these things get shown in great detail, the movie also shows how this is damaging and hurting the main character and the film concludes with her being a much more responsible person who knows how to control her feelings with more clarity after what she has gone through. But the really important part is that it isn’t done in a way that feels preachy or a part of an old after school special. Her journey feels real and the path she ultimately decides to go down by the end of the film doesn’t come off as cheap or lazy to quickly teach the audience a lesson. It feels like the conclusion she’s come to after trying to find herself. For once, a movie had the genius idea of showing one of the core aspects of growing up and not shaming its audience or telling them that it’s all sinful.
The relationship between Minnie and Monroe makes for an excellently uncomfortable center for Minnie’s character arc. Minnie starts the film by idolizing Monroe as this kind, all knowing lover. The movie slowly proves this to be an incorrect theory on her part. First off, I shouldn’t have to explain how weird and irresponsible it is for this 30 year old guy to be having sex with a minor. But even if I let that slide, it’s his drinking that leads to them having a romance. He takes acid with her and engages in a three way with her friend when they’re all on drugs. After having sex with her multiple times, he makes the relationship all her fault and yells at her for being a bad person. He constantly breaks off the relationship and he keeps bringing it back. And to top it all off, he is still in an equally unstable relationship with her mom and constantly treats her like sh*t and encourages her alcoholism.
Monroe sounds like a guy that is very irresponsible and murky but what’s great about the movie is that the film still manages to humanize him and make him even a little sympathetic. Okay he’s not Gandhi or anything but he seems genuinely lost in life. This is partially due to how sincere and realistic the underrated Skarsgard is in the role but it’s also because how sympathetic he is in the film plays an important part for the rest of the movie. Monroe seems too late into his life to change or reshape any of the bad habits he made earlier on his teen years and he has them too locked in to do anything about them. I think he really does want to do something important but he’s too old to be able to fight his addictions or be the adult he needs to be with the relationship with Minnie. An important scene where he breaks down on acid is what it ultimately takes for Minnie to stop idolizing him and finally see him for what he really is.
Another person Minnie also has to lose as a hero throughout is her mother. First off, let me say that this is the best Wiig’s potential has been used to date. It’s felt like whenever she’s done a good job; the surrounding movie has been not nearly as good like The Skeleton Twins or Welcome to Me. This is the first time where she is giving an amazing performance in an amazing film. She knocks it out the part as this liberal figure who bounces back between being a sweet, charming person and this total wreck that needs for her children to be taken away from her. What’s heartbreaking is that you can tell that she loves her children but she is so messed up and she can’t help herself from being a bad influence on them. She has far more of a chance of redemption than Monroe but Minnie also has to realize that her mom can’t be the parental figure she wants her to be and she will have to rely on herself to have a better future and provide for her younger sister. One of the things about growing up is that you can’t play dumb anymore and you have to see the real people, warts and all. In both of these situations, Minnie has to rise above and see them for what they are and accept them for that as she grows up. She can love her mom but she can’t expect her to always be there for her and help her out. She sees where they went wrong and she has to be adult in these moments so that she can give herself a better life.
Last in the long list of things this movie does right about growing up is perhaps the most relatable one for me, Minnie is a worrying teenage artist trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life. She finds inspiration in the old 60’s and 70’s artists like Kominsky and Crumb and she spends her free time drawing self-portraits and making little comics about her daily life. I’ve got to be honest here, as a teen, I have all of the worries she has here as a young artist. She doesn’t know if she has any actual talent and she worries about being as good as her heroes. She’s afraid of whether or not she’ll be able to use her passion as a way to provide for herself and she often feels stressed out when she isn’t working as much as she wants to. Truth be told, they even got down how sometimes she puts their passion in front of school work. Her struggles in this area feel so real and so genuine that I sometimes felt like this movie spoke to me a little.
The movie evens goes out of its way to use her art in the real world. The movie uses animation in a lot of scenes like when she’s dreaming in the bath tub or talking to one of her idols or even growing wings while taking acid with Monroe. These little touches only add to the movie by bringing her dreams to life in a way that doesn’t seem gimmicky or self-indulgent. I give all the credit in the world to director Marielle Heller who managed to make a very visually creative movie with such a raw, intimate subject. From the uses of her artwork on screen to the very authentic look they gave to the mid 70’s with the costume and production design, this is a very impressive debut. The movie also gets points for an outstanding soundtrack which basically bumps this movie up to a positive rating just for using a song by Television. I want to see more movies by her in the future and I’ll be very disappointed if she doesn’t move on to bigger things after this.
Finally, I have to give high praise to the film’s star Bel Powley. Her IMDB page doesn’t have much yet but I expect that to be changing. This is a performance that is so good that it would be near criminal for her not to get to go on to more leading parts. She makes you believe that this character is a real person. She presents her with a wild independence that you can only get from a teenager but at the same time she shows that Minnie is still in a lot of ways a child. She bounces back between snorting cocaine and acting like she owns the world and crashing down, crying in a telephone booth (I’m trapped in a glass case of emotion!) and exposing herself for actually being very insecure about everything.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl accurately portrays what it means to grow up. Most of the fears and risks and dreams of being a teen are shown here with the utmost clarity. The movie also puts its director and star on the map as true talent to look out for. Overall, this movie accomplishes so much that so many other films can’t reach and it does in a way that feels confident and assured. I loved this film way more than I thought I would and I will go as far as to say that this movie should be a required watch for anyone that’s somewhere within in the same age of the main character of this movie. You might think you’ve seen this film before but believe me when I say you haven’t, this is an experience that is massively different than anything else you will see this year in the theaters.
Release Date: 8/7/2015
Directed by: Marielle Heller
Screenplay by: Marielle Heller
Based on the novel by: Phoebe Gloeckner