Sony Pictures Classics
When director and screenwriter Marielle Heller introduced her debut feature, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, at last night’s New Directors/New Films kickoff premiere in New York, she likened Phoebe Gloeckner’s novel to Catcher In the Rye for girls. The book, which features Gloeckner’s own original drawings and is reportedly loosely based on her own coming-of-age, making it a bit of a novel/graphic novel/autobiography hybrid, is just that seminal and that original, so it’s only fitting that Heller’s film is also an instant classic in its own right.
Heller’s film – a years-long passionate project – premiered back at Sundance in January, where it was almost instantaneously hailed as one of the best of the fest (I remember the cavalcade of tweets that clogged up my feed as soon as the film’s first screening let out, combined with the horrific panic when I realized there was no way I could make a subsequent screening of the film fit into my packed schedule) and then quickly snapped up by Sony Pictures Classics. It’s easy enough to describe the film as a coming-of-age story, but the film is deeply creative and uncomfortably honest in ways that are often missing from current coming-of-age stories. It cuts to the bone, and then it keeps going.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl stars Bel Powley — who, spoiler alert, is a goddamn revelation in the film – as fifteen-year-old Minnie Goetz. When we first meet Minnie, she’s strolling through San Francisco, strong, confident, proud… and no longer a virgin. Turns out, Minnie has just lost her virginity and she’s nothing but excited about her new role as a sex-having member of society (she even muses if losing her virginity means she’s an adult now, a line that earned appreciative snorts from last night’s audience – even whipsmart Minnie is still just a teen at times). We soon find out just who Minnie lost her V-card to, as she takes to recording her thoughts on tape-recorder-as-diary and walks it (and us) back to the event. (Is the tape recorder the Chekhov’s gun of the film? You bet your bell bottom-clad ass it is.)
Part of what makes Heller’s film – and Gloeckner’s book – so eye-opening is that it doesn’t take a judgmental stance on Minnie’s free-wheeling decisions (Minnie dabbles in drugs and booze throughout the film, which is set in the seventies), particularly as it applies to her choice in sexual partners. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that Minnie lost her virginity to her own mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgaard) and that the duo continue to engage in sex throughout the film, despite the illegality of the situation, the age difference, Minnie’s rollercoaster emotions, or the simmering pot of anger that is her wasted mother (Kristen Wiig, in one of her very best “serious” parts yet). Although Minnie falls for Monroe – kind of? – the real revelation of the film is that she likes sex.
She likes sex. She loves sex. She is a teenage girl and she likes sex and she wants it and that doesn’t make her a slut or stupid or loose or easy – it makes her a woman (a young one, but a woman nonetheless) in charge of her own destiny. Still, Minnie contains multitudes, and although her unabashed sexual awakening frames up much of the narrative, she discovers her drive, passion, and individuality through other means. Excessively creative, Minnie doesn’t excel at school, but she’s a talented artist who aims to be a working cartoonist (the film even includes animated bits inspired by Minnie’s own work). Minnie has big dreams and big ideas.
But she’s still just fifteen, and man, does Minnie make some big mistakes. But even when Minnie screws up, she’s still so fresh and funny and wild that we can’t help but love her. Raw honesty is Minnie’s defining trait, even if it’s painful, even if it doesn’t result in the kind of response she wants, even if it makes a schoolmate hiss “slut” at her as she walks by (Minnie, to her immense credit, shrugs off that particular occurrence, secure in the knowledge that she’s not whatever that is).
Heller’s comparison to Catcher in the Rye is a good one: here is a story that goes inside the mind of a teenager, unencumbered by convention or expectations. Teen are messy and weird and gross, but they’re also pushing forward into adulthood with such force that you can almost see it radiate off their bodies. Minnie is a new heroine, but she’s also an old one, just one that few filmmakers or writers have been willing (and honest) enough to commit to the screen, but she’s here now, and we’re never going to let her go.