It’s 1976 in San Francisco and Minnie Goetze is 15 years old, artistically inclined, full of feelings and interested in sex. She’s a fictional character. But in some ways she is every girl who ever kept a diary, felt misunderstood, worried she’d never be loved and went looking for that love in all the wrong places.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl, opening tomorrow in San Francisco and starring Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgård and newcomer Bel Powley, is a skillful adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s semi-autobiographical “account in words and pictures” by writer and first-time director Marielle Heller.
“When I read it I was like, oh, boys must've felt this way when they read Catcher in the Rye,” Heller says. Gloeckner’s story and the film begin without preamble at Minnie’s first sexual experience. It's the start of a dramatic and tumultuous affair with Monroe (Skarsgård), her mother’s 34-year-old boyfriend and, according to Minnie, "the handsomest man in the world."
The main character's typewritten diary in Gloeckner's book translates on screen to cassette tape audio recordings, kept hidden in a box under the teenager’s bed. Minnie's drawings bound off her sketchbook pages thanks to the work of animator Sara Gunnarsdottir, filling the movie with Aline Kominsky-esque animations of big-bottomed women and vertiginous San Francisco streets.
Minnie narrates the film with her vacillating emotions (she goes from “maybe I should kill myself” to “I should paint a picture” in 60 seconds flat), young-person logic (“school is essentially pointless”) and pitch-perfect humor. She cuts class, smokes weed, drops acid, goes to midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, visits comic book stores and gazes out over a foggy Dolores Park, preoccupied with boys, men, love, sex and herself.
In other words, she is a teenage girl -- the likes of which we rarely see on screen. She’s not precociously witty (see Juno), woefully under-rendered (see Denise in Can't Hardly Wait) or the object of someone else’s sexual fantasy (see Nadia in American Pie, Linda in Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Jennifer Love Hewitt in anything, ever). “I felt this need to almost protect Minnie, to protect the genuine honesty of her voice and how true she is to herself,” Heller says. “She exists without shame, she's really curious and she says all of the things that everyone else thinks but is too afraid to say.”
Bel Powley, who plays Minnie in the film, says Heller provides this platform. “People are too afraid to say it because people don't make movies or write novels or anything about it, so it's a vicious cycle,” she says. Minnie’s ability to see and speak the truth, to relate her story in text and graphic form, is her lifeline out of the darker corners in Gloeckner’s book, which include forays into prostitution, violence and heavy drug use.
While The Diary of a Teenage Girl has plenty of explicit scenes, the relationship between Minnie and Monroe is less uneven than it would seem. Mostly ignored by her mother (Wiig), labeled “intense” by a male classmate and only encouraged intellectually by an estranged and mostly clueless ex-step-father (Christopher Meloni), Minnie is a loner experimenting with sex, drugs and questionable decision-making. Skarsgård’s Monroe is an emotionally stunted giant rather than the lecherous predator we might expect, but the fallout of their relationship is real and damaging.
In classic teenager mode, Minnie thinks she knows better than all the adults around her. And in her case, this is actually true. The film’s lessons (and I use this term loosely -- because The Diary of a Teenage Girl is no heavy-handed moralizing tale) aren’t just for the female audiences who will identify with -- or simply recognize -- Minnie. Personal growth is difficult. Wrangling emotions into artistic output is important. Mistakes need to be made.
Heller’s film won’t fill the gaping hole that exists within the coming-of-age canon. But it may alter the way its audiences expect to see teenage female characters depicted. It's a small and welcome victory “for all the girls when they have grown,” the subject of Gloeckner’s dedication and the film’s closing line.