REVIEW: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

21 08 2015

The Diary of a Teenage GirlPeople like myself willing to live and let live when it comes to the unconventional relationship between Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn may experience a bit of cognitive dissonance while watching “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.”  (Or those who condemn the aforementioned relationship may have an entirely different reaction and feel the same inconsistency of ideology I felt.)

Marielle Heller’s film, adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel, tells a story of sexual pleasure and liberation first achieved by a 15-year-old through statutory rape by her stepfather figure.  Reason it away all you want so it sits well in your stomach – it was the 1970s, it was San Francisco, the initiator of the acts are not always clear. But at the end of the day, the ongoing physical relationship meets the criteria for criminal prosecution in the United States.

I usually prefer not to check my morals at the theater door, largely because such an act is why the world gets parties inanely styled after reprehensible behavior in films like “Fight Club,” “Project X,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.”  So, keeping that in mind, I often found it tough to get on board with the message of “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.”  Is this kind of borderline exploitative relationship actually supposed to be liberating?

The film gets away with some of this questionable mindset by framing the film within the subjectivity of its protagonist, Bel Powley’s Minnie. At such a young age, of course she views any sort of sexual content as exciting and pleasurable no matter how transgressive it might be.  “I guess this makes me an adult now,” she proclaims into a tape recorder after losing her virginity, making it perfectly clear that she widely overestimates her own maturity.  As carnal relations continue with her mother’s boyfriend Monroe, played by Alexander Skarsgard, we see just how quick she is to conflate sex and love.

Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgard in The Diary of a Teenage Girl

“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” proves a little bit more guiltlessly enjoyable when Minnie chooses sexual partners around her own cohort.  Untethered from concerns about quasi-incestual relations and age differences, this feminist bent on the sex comedy plays like a marvelous gendered revision to accepted norms. Minnie refuses to limit herself to the role of a passive object who exists simply to provide pleasure for men.  Were it not for Amy Schumer’s “Trainwreck” opening mere weeks before, I might have been truly hard-pressed to name a film that really allows sexual agency to women – besides, of course, “Nymphomaniac” (otherwise known as Lars Von Trier bragging about his knowledge of sex for four hours).

In the film’s most ingenious scene, she switches positions mid-coitus to get on top of a more senior classmate and drive sex her way towards her own orgasm. Her partner just lies there, clearly stunned at how Minnie hijacks his genitals for a one-sided experience.  “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” may serve as a similar wake-up call to people sitting comfortably to watch the film.

And, to clear the air, this is not just a string of soft-core pornography scenes.  Heller always gives precedence to Minnie’s thoughts and feelings; she allows several minutes of her elaboration on how losing her virginity felt but does not portray the act itself beyond initial foreplay.  These mental machinations often manifest in cartoon animation, “American Splendor” style, since Minnie finds drawing a crucial means of self-expression.

In the end, Heller and Gloeckner wants us to take away that “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is about more than the love you get from others but the love you choose to give yourself.  But that big conclusion feels somewhat hollow and unearned in a film that goes beyond being sex-positive and wades into the odd territory of being sex-no-negative.  The idea that Minnie might get pregnant or contract an STD never comes up because ideas like safe sex and contraception are never floated or discussed.  Yet when it comes to drug abuse, the slippery slope fallacy quickly kicks in to send Minnie on a downward spiral.

Not every movie about women exercising their sexual drive must be an exercise in punitive morality, but not acknowledging these aspects of the act feels just as immature as the protagonist.  As much as I would like to hold up “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” as a proud artifact of a society changing its attitudes towards gender and sexuality, I just have too many reservations to do so with much gusto.  B2halfstars

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7 responses

22 08 2015
The Vern

This movie kind of reminds me of Wetlands which also dealt with a promiscious teen(damn I know I messed up that word) and Fish Tank(girl has sex with older man suppose to be a father figure) Both movies made me feel uncomfortable but the acting was good.The only tig I want to comment on was on your first paragraph with Woody and Soon Yi. Now I am not defending nor am I praising. I just want to get some facts out there. Soon Yi was not Allen’s adopted step daughter. That was Farrow and her Husband. Woody and Mia were never married. It was her and and another guy’s step daughter before Mia and Woody started dating. Yes it is a bit creepy that after Woody and Mia went out for a few years, he got the hots for her, but it wasnt like he was living with her while she was growing up, and hey their marraige has lasted a lot longer then most hollywood ones, so who am I to complain. Just wanted to give you some facts there. Good review

22 08 2015
Marshall

Vern, I appreciate you taking the time to leave this comment. However, if you’ll go back and look closely, I never said that Woody Allen and Mia Farrow were married. There is a lot of grey area in terms of the role he played in her life, usually depending on who you ask. I merely put that line in there to point out that there might be some people who think that real-life relationship is creepy yet be OK with this movie. And that’s a contradiction that I think deserves to be grappled with some.

I know the facts, though I appreciate your concern and felt the need to leave them here. I’m a huge Allen fan and have seen most of the comprehensive biographies done on him (as well as read quite a bit too). I’m not trying to draw a perfect parallel. Just a loose connection.

22 08 2015
Marshall

Also, I’m not sure if you’ve seen the film, but I do say in my review “stepfather figure.” In “Diary,” Monroe fills the role of a pseudo-stepfather as he dates Minnie’s mother for an extended period of time and takes over some of the duties of fatherhood – though he’d probably say otherwise – as the biological father has moved east. Woody Allen was not ever a stepfather to Soon-Yi legally, but he was around her in some capacity as being in the same sexual strata as Mia Farrow. Thus, I do think there is some similarity in the breach of sexual generations, so to speak. (That’s probably not a thing, but I’m making it up.) “Fish Tank” is similar, too, you’re right. And I’m a little shocked to go back and read the Wikipedia summary and see she’s 15 too in the movie. That character just feels SO much older. Probably because she’s been through the school of hard knocks whereas Minnie seems a little more removed from the real world in her idyllic San Francisco ’70s hippie digs.

22 08 2015
Brittani

I get what you’re saying about having to check your morals at the door and having a tough time getting on board. I felt that way with The Lifeguard. I enjoyed that movie, but at the same time I kept thinking “She would go to jail for this.” I’ve heard a lot of good things about this film, so I’ll see it eventually. Especially being a fan of Skarsgard’s. Great review!

22 08 2015
Marshall

Thanks for reading! I do hope that I articulated later on that I do find a lot to admire about this film’s point of view but just am not sure that the relationship that kicks it off is really as praiseworthy as Minnie suggests it might be. (And I’d love to really dig into it further, perhaps in an essay/feature, but for a general review I did not want to launch into spoiler territory.)

26 08 2015
The Vern

My apologies for not seeing that part about Mia and Woody in your post earlier. This movie I know will make me feel a bit icky so I have not watched it and not sure I will anytime soon, but Something I will check later

26 08 2015
Marshall

Not to worry – I’ve made the same kind of comment many times before! Your comment did lead me to tweak the opening a little bit so it was a little clearer, so I appreciate you prompting me to rethink my approach to it some.

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