’70s SF recalled in raw, poignant ‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’
When you think of San Francisco underground comics in the 1970s, you might think of Mr. Natural, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, maybe Fritz the Cat. These classic “comix” viewed the era of sex, drugs and the uninhibited exploration of both from a decidedly male and adult perspective.
As you might suspect from the title, the film Diary Of a Teenage Girl revisits that milieu from an entirely different viewpoint—a 15-year-old girl navigating the perilous tightrope between child and grown-up. It’s based on the graphic novel of the same name written and drawn by comics artist Phoebe Gloeckner. The book was published in 2002, but the story looks back to San Francisco in 1976. With enough raw language, drug use, and sex (and, scarier still, to some viewers, teen sexuality), the film earns its “R” rating, yet there’s something fresh, compelling, and poignant about its female coming-of-age drama set in a liberating yet dangerous world of almost no taboos.
Scripted and directed with verve and sensitivity by Marielle Heller, the film plunges us smack into the middle of its set-up in the opening frames. A young teenage girl in a T-shirt and bell-bottom jeans is tromping wide-eyed through Golden Gate Park. In an exuberant voice-over, she tells us why. “I had sex today! Holy shit!” She’s Minnie Goetz (an extraordinary Bel Powley), who, like many 15-year-old girls, is really looking for unconditional love, but is not quite experienced enough to know the difference.
The object of Minnie’s misplaced affection is the feckless Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), a placidly handsome 35-year-old, who also happens to be the current boyfriend of Minnie’s divorced mom, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig). Early on, we see a moment of easygoing affection between the two of them, shoving playfully at each other, sitting on the couch, watching TV, after Mom has gone to bed.
But when Minnie, in her eagerness, asks for more, the self-serving Monroe lacks the moral backbone to tell her no, in any more than a fleeting, token way. The next day, he takes her out of school and off to a motel. (“I didn’t know you were a virgin,” he says, offhandedly, afterward, as if it would have made any difference to him.) Their trysts continue, with Minnie trying to invest them with more meaning than they have, struggling to learn the “adult code,” and wondering why she still feels “so alone.”
When she eagerly confesses all to her wanton girlfriend, Kimmie (Madeleine Waters), Minnie fails to get the validation she hopes for when her friend cries, “Eww—he’s so old!” Fortunately for Minnie—or not—her mom is a party girl, too wrapped up in her own haze of booze and cocaine to notice what’s going on with Minnie or her kid sister, the ever-watchful Gretel (Abby Wait). Nor do they get much guidance from their father, Pascal (Christopher Meloni), an uptight, button-down scientist with a cool veneer and a short fuse.
The story is narrated by Minnie in a series of diary entries she pours into a vintage piano-key tape recorder while barricaded in her room. Bits of these thoughts are used effectively on the soundtrack as the story unfolds onscreen (“Is this what it feels like for someone to love you?” she wonders tremulously as Monroe lies snoring beside her).
Meanwhile, after the proprietor of a neighborhood comic book store gives her a copy of Twisted Sister by Aline Kominsky, Minnie starts composing gleefully unexpurgated drawings of both her real-life and fantasy experiences. Animated versions of these become an integral part of the film, like an outbreak of red neon cartoon feathers that carpet her back like wings during an acid trip. When she discovers her determined sexuality scares boys her own age, she imagines a scenario, “The Making of a Harlot,” in which a giant Minnie lumbers through San Francisco like Godzilla, devouring teenage boys.
This is serious stuff, told with disarming imagination, and a delicate sense of heartbreak for all that rudderless Minnie doesn’t yet know about the treacherous world that might swallow her up at any moment. But ultimately, it’s a story of victorious selfhood—against all odds.
DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL
With Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgard and Kristen Wiig. Written and directed by Marielle Heller. From the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner. A Sony Classics release. Rated R. 102 minutes.
UNINHIBITED EXPLORATION Kristen Wiig, Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgard in Marielle Heller’s ‘Diary of a Teenage Girl,’ based off the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner.