Adolescence is, as that early Tom Cruise vehicle grasped, a risky business. The Diary of a Teenage Girl has already stumbled while making that tightrope crossing separating the accessible, age-appropriate 15 certificate from the more restrictive 18 – a censorial ruling that seems a shade harsh, even if it allows Diary to continue the long and educative tradition of Films Curious Kids Will Just Have to Try and Sneak Into.
Writer-director Marielle Heller is altogether more poised in negotiating the fallout from 15-year-old Minnie Goetz’s decision to give up her virginity to her mother’s boyfriend. Adapting Phoebe Glockner’s in-every-sense graphic novel, Heller’s film actually provides more context for this act of transgression than Andrea Arnold did in 2009’s 15-rated Fish Tank, which proposed it was enough for a young girl to be in the same room as the apparently irresistible Michael Fassbender.
Here, we’re taken back to the San Francisco of 1976, where the ethos of free love is still hanging, albeit somewhat forlornly, in the air. With hippy-dippy mom Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) away sourcing coke with her progressive pals, Minnie (Bel Powley) can’t help but snuggle closer to Charlotte’s live-in lover Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard); driven by her growing curiosity with regards to her own form, their rough-housing and sofa-sharing soon develops into something more than PG-13.
Viewed objectively, what the film is depicting is statutory rape, which may have factored into the BBFC’s thinking; still, to do so would be to disregard Minnie’s perspective, and the fact this deeply subjective, empathetic film frames this life-altering experience as very much a choice made by its heroine. (I could also float into evidence my suspicion that a lot of teenage girls will have fantasised about losing it to Eric from True Blood.)
At any rate, as a coming-out platform for Brit actress Powley, Diary proves far more satisfying than May’s flimsy A Royal Night Out. With her vestigial puppy-fat and big blue eyes taking everything in, she has the look of a teenager rather than a catalogue model – and of the sensible one in a classroom of Farrah Fawcett wannabes, which makes her decision to take the plunge with her mom’s man, rather than any of her contemporaries, even more transgressive.
Heller’s particularly attuned to the consequences of this cherrypopping, when hormones are replaced by emotions, complications kick in, and the needy little girl emerges, naked and trembling, from behind the façade of the young urban sophisticate. Minnie’s “I think we need to talk about our relationship” gets a laugh because it sounds funny coming out of the mouth of one so immature, but the laughter dies on the lips with her lover’s dismissive response, as Monroe becomes the second father figure to cast this child away, and the first to have slept with her beforehand.
The emotions and experiences feel lived-through; perhaps it’s only the psychology that has been toned down for wider consumption. Heller certainly knows how to dramatise the power of female sexuality, and she wrestles with one of feminism’s core conflicts – that between girls and mothers held to different standards – without turning the spectacle into anything so crass as a knock-down, drag-out catfight. Still, I think the heroine breaks more rules than the movie.
Where Catherine Breillat – no stranger to this kind of material, as a CV that includes A Real Young Girl, 36 Fillette and A Ma Soeur! suggests – would work in some provocative pause for thought (or dreadful self-realisation), Heller cues up Mott the Hoople, among other period favourites, in a bid to reassure the Friday night crowd. (Could this be another reason that 18 certificate stung so – that the producers were aiming for warm and fuzzy?)
No matter: working even some of Breillat’s business into a multiplex crowdpleaser is no small achievement. Heller’s film affirms this writer-director and her young star as real talents to watch, while Skarsgard and Wiig’s performances quietly but forcefully back up the thesis on just how difficult it is to regulate (or, indeed, classify) desire – whatever your age, your gender or your standing in life.
(MovieMail, August 2015)
The Diary of a Teenage Girl screens on Channel 4 tonight at 1am.