When I was a teen, the films that most soothed my tumultuous soul and ailing self-esteem were the ones that seemed to “get” what it was like to be a teenage girl. They had to parallel my in-between years by being as fun and quirky as a child could want while facing my issues with the gravity deserved by an adult. Few coming-of-age films were able to navigate this balance as well as The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which I watched on the day I turned 20.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl will raise some eyebrows because of its controversial subject matter and self-pitying narrator. However, the story itself is aesthetically stunning and, more importantly, takes its audience on a gripping and cathartic character journey.
Co-written and directed by newcomer Marielle Heller, The Diary of a Teenage Girl premiered at the 2015 Sundance Festival. It was adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s comic book of the same name and tells the coming-of-age story of a fifteen-year-old girl named Minnie Goetze, a frank, stone-faced girl who loves to draw and thinks she’s so unappealing no man will ever love her.
We first meet her as she tells her tape recorder diary that she feels attractive and wanted because she has had sex for the first time that day. She has, in fact, allowed her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), to take her virginity. However, the glow quickly wears off. Jealous of Monroe’s relationship with her mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), Minnie develops a habit of initiating casual sex with other men while continuing to sleep with Monroe.
A turning point occurs when she discovers the work of comic artist Aline Kominsky, who becomes an important part of the film. Her art inspires Minnie’s drawings, which many times transforms into lively animations in Kominsky’s lewd style. These animations effectively show the balance of light and dark in Minnie’s adolescent imagination. The artist also makes cameos as a cartoon version of herself who gives Minnie advice, namely to keep drawing and to value herself.
The world of drugs, however, obstructs her positive growth. They become a source of escape when her relationship with Monroe starts failing.
The story of Minnie’s fall by the hand of drugs is nothing new – it is the subject of many a harrowing work of fiction, including popular novel Go Ask Alice. However, the film deals with the issue from a much lighter tone because of its narrative and aesthetic styles.
While Minnie’s experiences can be said to be atypical, the film explores the universal theme of self-respect. It does this effectively, partially because Minnie’s self-deprecating narration (ideas like “I should probably stick with Monroe because no one else will ever want to have sex with me”) conveys it in a tongue-in-cheek, humorous way. She also faces a multitude of challenges rarely explored in similar films, including her mother’s neglect and her addictions to sex and drugs. These make her fight for self-respect into a cathartic character journey.
Minnie’s story takes place in the 70s, a decade known for a trend of women’s liberation. The Diary of a Teenage Girl can be interpreted as an analogy of the internal challenges women faced as they adapted to their new freedoms.
The 70s setting also helps to keep the film light and suitable for teens. Relatively removed from global events including the Vietnam war, the film instead focuses on culture, including the 70s’s wild style of living and dressing. The female main characters wear outfits that incorporate bell-bottoms and wooden wedges, making the film an informal lesson in fashion. While the decade was known for its bright color fad, the film is shot entirely in desaturated colour, giving it a warm and inviting quality reminiscent of old photographs.
The film’s soundtrack incorporates just the right amount of indie. Its two opening songs, “Dreamsong” by Nate Heller and Amber Coffman and “Looking for the Magic” by Dwight Twiley Band are wonderful standalone pieces that also work great in the contexts in which they appear in the film. Many of the songs are dance-related and none are moody, also keeping the overall tone of the film light.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl reaches the rarely explored extremes of teenage life while still being light and entertaining, making it a painless and effective band-aid for teens and adults alike.