There was something about the laughter in the audience I saw The Diary of a Teenage Girl with that really freaked me out. Yes, the movie is funny, but it’s funny in an uncomfortable way that recalls difficult works from Todd Solondz like Welcome to the Dollhouse & Happiness moreso than any laugh-a-minute yuck ’em ups. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a rare picture that manages to incorporate effective black comedy into its beautiful visual artistry & the brutal, unmitigated honesty suggested by its confessional title. Adapted from a graphic novel by the same name, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is the story of a vulnerably naive 15 year old comic book artist who gets wrapped up in a sexual affair with her mother’s much older boyfriend in 1970s San Francisco. It’s a difficult film to stomach at times, but it’s one told with an intense attention to verisimilitude & vivid incorporations of top notch comic book art, all held together by a career-making performance from Bel Powley, who plays the exceedingly endearing, but deeply troubled protagonist Millie. I’m willing to chalk up a good bit of the laughter from the theater where I watched the film to discomfort with the subject matter, something I’m more than sure was intended by first-time writer/director Marielle Heller, but I often found my own reactions to what was happening onscreen to be far more complicated than mere ribald laughs. It almost felt transgressive to watch the movie with a large group of vocal strangers, as if I were actually hearing the private diary of a complete stranger being read aloud in public. It’s a starkly intimate work.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl opens with a leering shot of Millie’s denim-clad butt as she struts through a public park populated with 70s San Fransiscan hippies, weirdos, bellbottoms, and mustaches. Amidst this time warp fashion show, Millie proudly declares, “I had sex today. Holy shit.” We soon learn that her newfound sexual exploration isn’t quite as positive of a development as she believes. Not knowing the full extent of what she was getting herself into (how could she?), Millie intentionally seduces her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), initiating a longterm affair that eventually drives some irrevocable wedges between her & her mother (Kristen Wiig). Her reasoning for acting out on her lust for Monroe? “I was afraid to pass up the chance because I may never get another.” Millie is full of these self-deprecating, sadly funny “truisms”. After sleeping with Monroe, she asks “Is this the way it feels for someone to love you?” She later yearns, “I want someone to be so in love with me that they would feel like they would die if I were gone,” and makes ridiculous declarations like “I want to be an artist so school actually doesn’t matter that much for me,” & “Hookers have all the power. Everybody knows that.” Her naiveté can be amusing when she gets teen-deep in her sexual philosophizing, but it also indicates a terrifying vulnerability that Monroe was a monster to take advantage of.
While Millie pines over Monroe in a typical “he loves me, he loves me not” fashion, he treats her more like a younger sister, incorporating an uncomfortable amount of childish horseplay in their flirtation. She’s a shameful fling in Monroe’s mind. She’s also, according to him at least, completely to blame for the affair. The movie does little to sugarcoat the realities of its mid-70s setting, establishing a very specific cultural mindset with references to the Patty Hearst kidnapping controversy (which Wiig’s flower child mother refers to as “fascist misogynistic bullshit”), the rise of sexually androgynous milestones like Iggy Pop & The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the omnipresence of Fruedian psychology (represented onscreen by Christopher Meloni), depictions of teens freely ordering drinks in barrooms, the drugged out loopiness of H.R. Pufnstuf, and era-honest inclusions of casual racism & homophobia. It’s tempting to say that an affair with a 15 year old in that context would not have been as big of a deal as it is now, it being “different times” & all, but c’mon . . . Monroe feels intense guilt for the affair, because he knows it is wrong. Still, he blames Millie for his own transgression, as does every other person who learns of the affair (another indication of the times). When Monroe becomes increasingly frustrated with Millie’s adolescent behavior, he explodes “You’re a fucking child!” Well, he’s not wrong there, which is a large part of why he should’ve known better & why he’s so much at war with his own conscious.
To her credit, Millie is often blissfully unaware of just how detrimental her affair with Monroe actually is. Convinced that Monroe is only continuing to sleep with her mother to avoid suspicion, Millie mostly worries about whether or not he loves her back, not how much longterm damage he’s causing her psyche. In a lot of ways, Monroe is just one part of Millie’s coming of age story, which also involves experimentation with ditching class, hard drug use, bisexuality, self body image, skinny-dipping, prostitution, running away from home, and attempts to connect with her favorite comic book artist, Aline Kominsky (a real life talent & real life wife of Robert Crumb). Stuck halfway between an older man who can’t keep up with her overactive libido & her teen sexual partners who aren’t nearly as good in bed (not to mention often freaked out by her pursuit of her own orgasms), Millie is alone in a crowd. She both makes intentionally provocative statements like “I hate men, but I fuck them hard, hard, hard, and thoughtlessly because I hate them so much,” & hypocritically shames friends who are struggling with the same pursuits of sexual & personal autonomy.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl pulls no emotional punches as Millie perilously navigates these deeply troubled waters, often lightening the mood both with its protagonist’s endearing sense of humor & teen-specific lack of self-awareness, but never letting its characters off the hook for their often-cruel transgressions. All of this heft is backed up by a vivid visual collage format that allows ink drawings to come to life, wallpaper to transform into a jungle, and a bathtub to suddenly expand to an ocean, making great use of that concession without it ever outwearing its welcome. What results is an incredibly adept debut feature for Marielle Heller & an remarkable display of range for actress Bel Powley. I’m just as excited to see where their careers are headed in the future as I am to revisit this film as soon as I can get my hands on the novel (and experience it with a more intimate, on-my-wavelength audience).