“Dear Diary,” the page often began, followed by some weepy tale of unrequited love, or the daydreams of a future happily ever after. We call them journals today, but way back when, teenage girls wrote their deepest thoughts, wishes, inky heart doodles and problems in their diaries.
But “Dear Diary” doesn’t quite cut it in the case of “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” a new film based on the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner. Gloeckner pulled no punches in telling the harrowing fictionalized version of her story, and the film throws some gut-punches of its own.
The year is 1975. Minnie, 15, is all artsy-awkward and desperately looking for a shortcut from girl to woman so she can have a life in the real world that is as fulfilling as the one in her head.
Played seamlessly by 23-year-old English actress Bel Powley, Minnie is like an uncensored, far more damaged Margaret from Judy Blumes’ 1970 groundbreaking young adult novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.”
Minnie and her younger sister live with their single mother Charlotte, subtly played by Kristen Wiig. Charlotte’s seductively sleazy bum of a boyfriend Monroe (a brilliant Alexander Skarsgard) demonstrates how subtle a predator a pedophile can be, as he begins innocently at first making sexual overtures toward Minnie, then actually moving into statutory rape when she responds with excitement instead of revulsion.
But you can’t blame Minnie for being stupid, as you can’t blame any child victim of an adult’s sexual abuse. She is so desperate to expand her life beyond the walls of her own head, she mistakes Monroe’s overtures for flattery, and she drinks up the attention as he continues to deepen their affair. In the process, Minnie’s cherubic, wide-eyed beauty becomes smeared with dark eyeliner, drugs and sexual experiences that should be years down the road for her.
She falls for him, in almost a form of Stockholm Syndrome, and as the Patty Hearst kidnapping plays out in the background while Minnie continues to be abused by Monroe, the parallels are obvious.
Minnie keeps a diary, sometimes doodling her thoughts and feelings in complicated drawings, and sometimes speaking her thoughts into a tape recorder. She is creative, funny and bright, as she documents her experiences and her attempt to fill the void inside her heart.
“I wish I knew someone who was happy,” she says – a statement loaded with enough subtext to fill all of Holden Caulfield’s highbrow suitcases.
Her diary is a simmering, smoldering multimedia affair depicting adult problems foisted on her by the people she trusted. And the film that manifests around it is an ever-changing prism of brilliance, wince-inducing humiliation, rebellion, longing, horrifying child sexual abuse, and a million other colors in a sometimes disturbing, yet eventually beautiful, rainbow.
Unfiltered nudity and starkly lit sex scenes are sickening when you consider the character’s young age. The film’s abstract portrayal of how child abuse triggers self-destructive behavior in its victims is difficult to watch.
We don’t ever see inside Monroe’s head; we never really know if he initially meant to seduce Minnie, and in his clumsy attempts to manage the secret of their affair and Minnie’s childlike demands we only find out he’s a child himself emotionally.
The adult characters in the film are kept at a shallow depth, which lends itself to the film’s flawless painful portrayal of a still-developing teenage psyche. Minnie’s self-focused world view, with her as the center of gravity and everyone else just orbiting around her, is textbook teenager.
The hyperbolic reception of Gloeckner’s 2000 novel may have led to a film sooner if she hadn’t been waiting for the right person to bring it to the screen. She obviously found that person in the film’s writer/director Marielle Heller. Heller’s screenplay is at times so painfully brittle you may want to plug your ears and say “lalala” until the moment passes. But therein lies why it is so very, very good: This is a film about truth, and sometimes truth is harsh, brittle, horrifying, even paradoxically deceptive.
The movie’s art direction, cinematography, production design and detailed period depiction create a faded-photo 1970s world. Powley cannot be ignored come awards season for her authentic, endearing performance. She dissolves into the character and whatever mechanics she uses in her acting process are invisible. Skarsgard, too, melts into Monroe – he somehow avoids making Monroe a totally one-dimensional jerk, although his character is no less repulsive.
This is not a happy coming-of-age story. As a quiet, dark, arthouse-cinema character-driven drama, it is at times disgusting and shocking to watch Minnie march ignorantly on toward her adulthood mirage, taking hit after hit. It makes Blume’s then-shocking novel read like an episode of “Gidget.” But if Margaret were telling a story in the uncensored artistic freedom of the 21st century, it could look like this.
It’s definitely a film made by women, about women, for women – and a special one at that. But for filmgoers who stick with Minnie and witness her difficult journey, it is also a superb portrayal of a young girl’s inner strength, with a memorable ending featuring redemption, and eventually, closure.
Diary of a Teenage Girl
Starring: Bel Powley, Kristin Wiig, Alexander Skarsgard
Director: Marielle Heller
Running time: 102 minutes
Rating: R for strong sexual content including dialogue, graphic nudity, drug use, language and drinking, all involving minors.
The Lowdown: A 15-year-old girl in 1975 San Francisco sets on a downward spiral when her mother’s boyfriend seduces her.