The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)
dir. Marielle Heller
written by: Marielle Heller
starring: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgard, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Meloni
3.5 out of 4 stars
Book to movie adaptations have provided too many hours of contemplation since the beginning of my media obsessions. Many argue, “The book is always better than the movie.” Where this is often true, there are numerous examples of the movie outweighing the source material. Precious from Lee Daniel, the title trumped by the teleportation abortion Push earlier that year, harnessed Sapphire’s Push, adapting a disturbing, poetic novella into a powerful film with amazing performances from unlikely sources and a screenplay that left me crying in my seat twice despite having read the book. Then there’s Up in the Air, the Jason Reitman gem based on Walter Kirn’s dull novel, that brought heart and stinging timeliness to a book I had to stop reading from utter boredom. And of course there is the example of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust transitioning from his weakest work to a fun fantasy romance with rewatchable qualities.
Now we have a less jarring example of inequality. The Diary of a Teenage Girl by Phoebe Gloekner is part graphic novel, part diary fiction. Minnie Goetz is a somewhat repugnant fifteen year old girl, stuck in her own world, vaguely supervised by her cocaine enthusiast mother; a sister named Gretel inhabits the space in front of the television. The novel catches us up on her memories from her increasingly fucked up days. She starts with just sleeping with her mom’s boyfriend Monroe and hooking up with guys in the park, and eventually it drifts into murkier territories. The cultural significance is present throughout the story; this child of the seventies mentioning Armistead Maupin’s impending Tales of the City was a personal delight. It’s mostly the Minnie story, though. She fucks Monroe; she’s sad about it, or she’s angry at him. She goes partying with her best friend Kimmie, and then acts like Kimmie is a loser that she inevitably winds up with again two pages later. This girl never learns through this entire process and has somewhat of a realization toward the end. Minnie is a petulant teen, and as this is a book about a teenage girl, it fits.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is not a bad book. The story can become obnoxious, and it revisits the same problems over and over again. Having grown up with a teenage sister though, I guess this isn’t unreasonable. I know I’ll never read it again. I will say the graphic novel portion of the book was fantastic. Every drawn scene adds so much to the book’s worth. I didn’t want the text to return, but instead follow the thought bubbles in Kimmie’s world. It spoke of the young woman’s art and saw inside her messed up adolescence in ways the diary entries never could. The illustrations of her life created a girl that was finally growing into her own real person.
Writer and director Marielle Heller outdid herself. For her screenwriting and directorial debut, Heller took a troubled diary fiction and created a realized, troubled world for Minnie to make her mistakes. Switching the typewritten diary entries to Minnie’s voice recordings allowed the self-involved teenager to fade into an adolescent stream of consciousness, reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez by way of Judy Blume. More importantly, she toned down the intensity of the book to be more palatable on screen. I’m never one to dissuade the inclusion of violence, sex or drug abuse, but the book had so much, you wonder how this girl didn’t up and die. However, Heller did not pull her punches. Nudity, simulated sex, from unenthusiastic bathroom blowjobs to highly illegal threesomes, and ample drug use are still present throughout. As the writer, she toned down the intensity to appropriate levels, and as the director, she monopolized on the emotional turmoil in Minnie’s complicated life.
This film would have gone nowhere without the cast, though. Bel Powley, the British actress recently featured as one of Variety’s 10 Actors to Watch, is an emotional powerhouse that defines a struggling teen girl in every scene. Next her costars, fine as they were, you cannot take your eyes off Powley. Not only are her ramblings into her tape recorder made infinitely better than any entries in the book, she delivers the sexuality with naivete and proceeds with her nude scenes in a self-discovery only known to those first looking at their adult bodies. She’s still a self-involved brat often, but that’s the nature of the role. She does show the humanity and the regrets. Crying naked on the floor of Monroe’s apartment, Powley is emotionally raw, but walking around the city, drifting into the world of Minnie’s comics, she can be hilarious, touching, angry or powerful. She runs the spectrum, and her instincts are brilliant. The true power lies behind her eyes: wordlessly (as rare as that can be for this teen character) she expresses more about what Minnie feels than a momentous soliloquy ever could.
Surrounding Minnie is a cast of adults, in the most casual sense. Christopher Meloni plays her former stepfather who still sometimes supports them, particularly because he seems to be Gretel’s biological father; that is never clearly explained, but he wants her to call him Dad. He is a bastard and plays it well, popping into a few scenes to be pretentious and demeaning without betraying his “good guy” attempts.
Her more prominent “guardians” are the ones that stick. Kristen Wiig, seemingly everywhere on the indie scene lately, plays her mother Charlotte, and she nails it. She’s coked up fun in her druggier scenes, but the dramatic bits show her true talent as an actress. Discovering this mess her daughter and Monroe have gotten into, Wiig transitions from despair and anger in a true motherly manner. The last act gives Wiig the opportunity to stretch her legs. A drunken confrontation with the pedophillic lovers allows her pain to bleed through the martinis, but a slap and a hug after Minnie’s return from running away is the most memorable of her scenes. Charlotte may not be a great mom, but Wiig plays the parental permissiveness well.
With the biggest surprise of the year, Alexander Skarsgard plays Monroe, the thoroughly confused man-child Minnie begins to sleep with. Skarsgard, mostly known for True Blood, is given the opportunity to build an actual acting career with this role. Always the 70s douche, Monroe barely seems to recognize the severity of what he’s getting into with a 15-year-old, and Skarsgard plays confusion perfectly. He knows it’s wrong, but he can’t help himself, like a dog staring intently at that burger at grabbing length. Breaking down during a bad acid trip, Alexander produces his strongest piece of acting to date, outweighing everything he did with his admirable role in Melancholia, to produce a grown man freaking out with surprising control. I am pleased to see such development in this actor, living up to the family reputation his father produced.
For a book I would have thought unlikely to transition to film, this movie beat all expectations, including those high ones produced from the raves out of Sundance. The artistic touches chosen by the director enhanced the film and built upon the graphic nature of the source material. Powley and Heller are clearly emerging talents I anticipate seeing proceed in their careers. Their accomplishments can only continue to grow.