by Jason Callen
On paper Marielle Heller’s debut feature The Diary of a Teenage Girl looks like just another indie coming of age story, complete with quirky animation and comedic TV actors in “serious adult” rolls. With the rancid taste of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl still lingering on my palate I avoided this fearing it would be equally useless. Image my surprise then when it turned out to be uncompromising, intelligent, uncomfortable, and often quite funny.
It’s the uncomfortable part that will cause people the most pause; this is the story of a 15 year old’s affair with a 35 year old. I’ll let that sink in a second…ok I’m sure you’re filled with righteous moral indignation right now. It’s ok, let it stew for a second. Now toss it. If you can’t then don’t ever watch this movie. If you can, then you’re in for a surprise; a film that not only accepts the unlikely pairing but gives the young Minnie (Bel Powley) all the agency and power in the relationship. It is her instigation that propels the initial encounter and it’s her desire and personality that allows it to continue even after Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), who happens to be her mother’s boyfriend, admits that it shouldn’t go on. Millie is one of the strongest, most willful young characters (male or female) that I’ve seen in some time. While she may refer to herself as unattractive once or twice, this is not some “ugly-duckling” story where a young woman is “saved” by the affections of a man. On the contrary, Millie is presented as an intelligent thoughtful burgeoning artist. To its credit the film doesn’t even focus on the sexual relationship, though it is important and graphically represented, but makes it just one contributing factor to Millie’s growing as both and artist and person.
It is hard not to dwell on how non-exploitive this film is. There are so many places a lesser film would have gone with this narrative: make her helpless, make it about the criminality of Monroe’s actions, demonize her, demonize him, get the police involved, ect ect. Millie is no cliché and by staying true to her point of view, the film bypasses those clichés and more. That is not to say the film is without conflict. Millie’s sexual awakening isn’t simple. Apart from having an affair with her mother’s boyfriend, Millie takes on other lovers. Saying she experiments I feel cheapens the film and Millie’s character, but she does explore and is confronted with the complexity of sexual relationships as she tries to deal with her obsession with sex (her words). Even as her experiences grow the film remains completely non-judgmental of everyone. Even their (Millie has a younger sister) semi-estranged dad (a psychiatrist played by Christopher Meloni) is shown respect when he could have easily been a throwaway character.
It pays to mention that this is a period piece. Set in 1976, Millie and her mother are product of both the sexual revolution and the women’s liberation movements of the 60s. While the setting may have more to do with the autobiographical nature of the source material (a multi-media novel written by Phoebe Gloeckner) it really wouldn’t work in any other time. It’s too frank and full of spirit, and needs the social political background to succeed.
While this is Millie’s movie from beginning to end and Powley is truly great in the roll, equal praise should go to Skarsgard who has perhaps the tougher role. I’ve never seen him in a role like this; I’ve always associated him with strong often aggressive types but here he is calm and fearful, guilty but genuinely affectionate, and perhaps a little dense. It’s a difficult character to make sympathetic but he does it with ease. It’s the kind of understated performance that I would give awards to if it were up to me. The rest of the cast is strong as well. The aforementioned Meloni does nice work with his couple of scenes and Kristen Wiig as Millie’s mother, Charlotte, has great chemistry with Powley and Skarsgard.
Coming of age/teen comedies are as tried and true a genre as any Hollywood has to offer, unfortunately most of the time they are either trite or exploitative. Not since Todd Solondz’s debut Welcome to the Dollhouse have I seen an example that has so much respect for its young characters and such an honest, forthright approach to its message and themes. Heller (who also wrote the screenplay) has a bright future ahead of her. Hopefully she won’t get sucked into the Hollywood trap like so many young filmmakers. I don’t want to see her directing the next whatever superhero movie, action flick, or big stupid rom-com. We need more films with this level of maturity that explore their characters with such openness, understanding, and heart. Well, I need more at least.