Tuesday, September 1, 2015

THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL - indie sleeper of the summer

The Diary of a Teenage Girl took me back a little ways as a film-goer, to coming of age stories that have firmly rooted themselves in the feet of their protagonists and shown what it's like to have to face all of these gnarly things called feelings and responsibilities and how to deal with growing up. A movie like Ghost World comes to mind, also with the milieu of underground comics, and even Persepolis, if only in that universal way of showing how difficult it is to grow up as a girl anywhere.

What Diary of a Teenage Girl has to offer as a different conflict is that the main character, Minnie Goetze, becomes attracted to her mother's boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Sarsgaard). The attraction is reciprocated, and the two have sex; this is how the movie opens with Minnie's narration into her cassette recorder - "I had sex today, holy s***" - and unfolding from there in telling how this happened, and then how this relationship unfolds.

It's not even so much about the question of whether her mother (Kristin Wiig) will find out, though that does pop up from time to time just in the 'When will the Dramatic Bottom Drop Out' sort of thing, but about this girl trying to figure out the very basics of her existence in this time of her life: what does she want, who does she want, what does this thing called sex and hormones do to her?

We can ascertain she's gone through puberty, or is at least in the late stages of it, but is still a child in some other ways; Minnie's playful, she messes about physically with Monroe in such a way that isn't always even about sex, just about someone to have the fun child-like interactions with any person under confidence or comfort. And at the same time as she is having this sexual relationship, which not too slowly becomes an emotional one, she tries to go with other boys her own age (one is just completely startled by, should it be said, sophistication with sex, at least to an inexperienced teenage boy), and always in the world of comic books.

The influences (i.e. Robert Crumb but also, especially, his wife Aline Kominsky - and rock music and look of the period are specific - this is San Francisco in the mid 70's, not completely removed from the free-love and drug days, with a chaser now of cocaine (and heroin is in the background) - but what the filmmaker, astonishingly first timer Marielle Heller, is after what anyone, male or female, can relate to: what do you decide to do with yourself, and what happens when something that is rather disruptive to one's growth happens, like statutory rape? She does go through some of the dire straits and hard partying that one might see in a cautionary tale, but it's not necessarily about "drugs are bad" so much as this character is surrounded by things that may make things fun. But it's so very easy, in this time and place and with certain friends she hangs around with, to go into some bad scenes and moods.

What will be her way out of it? Simply the truth? What about an emotional one? Moreover, what's interesting on another level is how we see Monroe, through her eyes really (we don't get to see him really otherwise, every scene has Minnie's viewpoint, even, especially, seeing an argument between he and her mother). We can try to judge him as a pervert and a creep, but I'm not sure it's that simple, which is one of the things that makes this film so provocative.

Monroe isn't exactly a *bad* person, or it's not simply that clear. Is he fully manipulating the situation, or is, as he says, she is? It's clear he's doing the wrong thing, and yet the way the filmmakers show him, he's just a f*** up, not too unlike other people around him - hell, he see more of him than we do of Minnie's own mother, and she gets manipulated by him too. Watching the film, I didn't think Heller (by way of the author) shows him to be a certain way, or, to put it another way, Sarsgaard adds a level of basic humanity and sympathy to him almost. He's no monster, he's the guy who sits around on the couch eating cereal and watching cartoons - as a 35 year old man.

Well, Erik, time to call Pamela again.  (True Blood reference)

But again, this is just part of the success of this film. There's a lot of depth to how this is all shown, and a lot of these scenes are sexually graphic. Good. Show what it is like for this girl to go through these things, or the simple act of looking at herself in the mirror nude; what self-image is Minnie projecting on to herself?

Why does she think she's fat? It's the convention that teen girls will look at themselves that way - more than once she says that she's fat right in front of Monroe, or to her friends (but mostly Monroe) - as a way of some kind of looking for validation, or maybe from herself. It may make some in the audience squeamish, albeit this is not really a 15 year old, it's still a movie with adult actors - but it all IS so painfully realized and done without any full false artifice in what counts that it can be jarring to see what this girl goes through here. It should be, and it is.

Bel Powley may not have been in a movie before, at least in a role such as leading as this one, and she commands the screen just by making Minnie a female in full dimensions on screen. She's vulnerable, she's clever, she's fragile, she's tough and cutting, she takes things in with her big eyes and can be charming and cute and so many other things.

Wiig is also really great here, though on the supporting level (I'd expect to see a few good awards coming her way), but it's Powley who sells everything that the filmmakers are putting forward in the story. Minnie does screw up, more than once, and at other times you just want to give her a big hug or give her a few moments of peace away from people, or even with her father (Christopher Meloni, a couple scenes but so good in every moment). And Powley, surrounded by the artifice of a teenage girl's room and, sometimes, cartoon/comic book cut-outs illustrating her life in the mundane and sexually specific ways, makes this all a must-see. In a sometimes unassuming way, though many times in gut-punching, raw scenes, she delivers the goods like few other young actors this year.

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