Sunday, September 13, 2015

Innocence, Experience, Sex, and Drugs

Bel Powley in Diary of a Teenage Girl

In Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015, directed by Marielle Heller), a film set in the sexually liberated, doped up 1970s, the title character has a sexual relationship with her mother's boyfriend, a relationship enabled by the freewheeling nonchalance around some pretty fucked up things. It's a journey from innocence to experience that goes to some pretty dark places that may surprise anyone unfamiliar with its source material. Based on a comix novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, this comes from the underground comix tradition, and as such it's very much in tune with that tradition's dedication to breaking taboos. This is as frank a movie about sexuality--particularly the sexuality of teenage girls--as American movies have produced in recent years. Maybe ever.

Alexander Skarsgard and Bel Powley in Diary of a Teenage Girl

Diary of a Teenage Girl follows one Minnie Goetz, who is 15. When we first meet her, she's striding through a park in San Francisco where she lives, satisfied smile on her face. Her inner monologue, soon to be set down in an audio diary, tells us, "I had sex today. Holy shit!" The object of her romantic obsession is Munroe, the weak-willed boyfriend who's the latest in a series of men with whom her mother has paired. Munroe is not the instigator, at least not in Minnie's eyes. An innocent, possibly phantom feeling-up while watching television sets things in motion with Minnie as the primary instigator. Munroe is not a villain, in so far as he doesn't come across as predatory so much as he comes across as an opportunist. Her mother, Charlotte, is a self-obsessed librarian who lives like a rock star. Drugs and drink flow freely in her household, some of it matriculating to her children. Diminished inhibitions are part and parcel of this particular set of reality. Minnie romanticizes her relationship with Munroe, but Munroe is increasingly troubled by it as it goes on, in part because Minnie is clingy, but also because he's more and more afraid of getting caught. Meanwhile, Minnie draws comics and idolizes Aline Kominsky and goes to parties and to the Rocky Horror Picture Show and gets stoned. The movie conjures up a fantasy world in which the events Minnie enshrines in her diary are punctuated with animated flowers and other flights of fancy, as if the movie itself were pages on which she's scribbled. Kominsky dispenses life-wisdom as an underground cartoon version of an imaginary friend. Minnie's own comics are realized on screen as short animated interludes in which her id manifests as giant women with pendulous buttocks and colossal thighs. When, as it must, Minnie's diary is discovered by her mother, the movie takes a left turn into nightmare. Minnie runs away into the dark underbelly of seedy San Fran, gets stoned on harder drugs, and has a disastrous relationship with Tabatha, a young dyke who leads her pretty far astray. After a harrowing dark night of the soul, Minnie eventually returns home to reconcile with her mother and to put Munroe behind her. "I'm stronger than you, mother fucker," she thinks as she shakes his hand for the last time. Maybe she is.

Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgard  in Diary of a Teenage Girl

The most striking thing about Diary of a Teenage Girl is the way it upends the question of agency in its central relationship. If Munroe is ultimately a creep, it's not because he's an ephebophile. He is a passive participant in Minnie's sexual awakening. He's a creep because he's essentially weak in a cultural milieu that enables his weakness. It's always clear that Minnie is the prime mover in her sexual coming of age. The film communicates this with admirable economy in its very first shots, in which we see Bel Powley smile beatifically as she walks through a San Francisco park where the hangover of the 1960s has bled into the self-indulgent hedonism of the 1970s. It's also clear, almost from the outset, that Minnie's urges are very much the urges of an adolescent, and that they completely overwhelm whatever self-control she may have. In a later scene, she is very much a child clinging to a toy she doesn't want to lose when Munroe tries to disentangle himself from her. The centrality of Minnie's self in this narrative is also communicated in the way the film shoots her when she's nude. It's only when she's alone that we see her nudity in anything more than artfully arranged fragments. (Bel Powley, playing a 15 year old girl, was herself 22 when the film was shot).

Bel Powley in Diary of a Teenage Girl

The film that's been built around Minnie is dazzlingly creative, finding inventive ways to channel its roots in underground comix. Certainly, it's set at the epicenter of the comix explosion, in the same Haight-Ashbury haunts where R. Crumb first sold Zap Comix in headshops. When the film watches a comic book vendor sell Minnie a copy of Twisted Sisters, the comic where Phoebe Goeckner's comics first appeared, it's a sly bit of metacinema. The use of animated elements to decorate the film--particularly when Minnie is tripping on acid, is more overt. The style of the animation is more Aline Kominsky-Crumb than Goeckner's own, which is proper given that Kominsky functions as a talisman or aspirational figure beyond Minnie's more physical needs. The animation of the comics she herself draws illustrate an interior life that's much more complex than the hormonal chaos of her sexual behavior, though it's as tied to her image of her body as that behavior. Echoing the first scene in the film, which begins centered on Minnie's ass as she walks, the animation of her giant girl rampage is equally calipygian. It's a savvy visual rhyme.

Kristen Wiig and Bel Powley in Diary of a Teenage Girl

There's a weird dichotomy in this film's attitudes toward drug use. On the one hand, it's completely casual. Everyone in the film is using something, whether pot or coke. One of the film's funnier scenes finds Minnie's mom, coked to the gills, going on a manic cleaning binge while the television in the living room relates the latest news of the Patty Hearst case. An audience weaned on the "just say no" media platitudes of the last three decades will likely watch agog as Minnie snorts lines of coke at one of her mother's parties. But there's a real horror late in the film when Minnie lights off into the seedier nightworld of San Francisco after her affair with Munroe is discovered, predicated on the idea that Tabatha is leading Minnie into even harder drugs than coke, and into a life where sex is a commodity with which those drugs are purchased. This is one of the few parts of the film where the filmmakers are squeamish, perhaps because they like Minnie too much. They elide horrors, but they don't pull the trigger on them. There's also an uncomfortable homophobia in these scenes, given that they paint the film's most prominent queer character as a predator.

Bel Powley and Kristen Wiig in Diary of a Teenage Girl

Bel Powley, it should be said, is amazing as Minnie. She's in almost every shot of the film and she stands up to the scrutiny of the camera in every one of them. There's never a hint that she's an adult playing an adolescent. She sells the role so well that some of the members of the audience I was with wondered how the film was even made, given American laws about depicting the sexuality of minors. The fact that she's tiny compared to Alexander Skarsgard, who plays Munroe, or next to Kristen Wiig, who plays her mom, is serendipity. Skarsgard is surprising in a role that is not only constructed of weakness, but is also constructed of ridiculousness. The porn-stache seventies grooming they've given him entirely disguises the actor's natural charisma, and he plays the pathetic impotent dreamer perfectly. Kristen Wiig, at this point, needs to be discussed as one of the best actresses currently working. She's a chameleon. She doesn't bring a "persona" with her to this film, even though she has one that she's exploited to great effect in other films. The ability to turn that off is nothing to sneeze at. There are plenty of terrific actors who can't do that. This is particularly impressive given that for long stretches of the movie, she's a background character or a comedy flourish. The scenes she gets at the end, though, stretch her abilities in challenging ways. Director Marielle Heller deploys her actors expertly, perhaps as an extension of the stage production she made of this same material. This is a film that seems fully formed, without any staggering into blind alleys, perhaps because Heller was able to workshop all of it before it ever had a dream of becoming a movie.

Diary of a Teenage Girl is a film that's bound to make people uncomfortable, even among the most sex-positive liberal viewers, but it's also among the truest portraits of adolescent sexuality I've ever seen. The movies have always been reticent or exploitative or idealistically romantic or treacly maudlin when it comes to the sexuality of teenage girls, perhaps because most movies are made by and for men. This movie's female gaze demolishes all of that. For some reason, this film reminds me of PJ Harvey's "Fifty Foot Queenie," and not just because of Minnie's giant girl fantasy (though that rings in my head as a comparison, too). It looks at the male-themed bildungsroman and takes its measure, spitting back at it with bravado: "You come and measure me, I'm fifty inches long." This is raw, volatile, and electrifying. Bend over, Casanova.

Phoebe Gloeckner's Diary of a Teenage Girl

As a final note: I'm a working cartoonist, so I bristle at the conflation of "comic book" and "superhero" in the public massmind. When I hear the phrase "comic book movie," I'm as apt to think of a movie like this one or Ghost World or A History of Violence or Persepolis or American Splendor (perhaps this film's closest cinematic relative) as I am to think of Iron Man or Batman. I have a button that a friend of mine made for me that reads "It's a medium, not a genre." It makes me happy to see movies like this, in which not only the material is valued, but the form is valued as well. This is something that sometimes falls flat in a big budget epic. But not here, not at this scale. Here, playing with a hybrid of sequential graphic storytelling and cinematic storytelling seems all of a piece.

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