From time to time I get dragged to an art house film. Most recently I caught Marielle Heller's movie The Diary of a Teenage Girl, based on Phoebe Gloeckner's semi-autobiographical, semi-graphic novel of the same name. It has been nominated for four Gotham awards, which may or may not presage something in Oscars. This is not your usual teen movie. Instead it's a stunning, even shocking story of a rather disastrous adolescence.
Bel Powley, nominated for best actress, plays the fifteen year-old Minnie Goetze, and the movie, like the book, is the story of her affair with her mother's thirty something boyfriend, somewhat complicated by the usual adolescent problems, including especially her mother, a frequently drunk, drug addled and always inattentive bimbo in mid 1970's San Francisco. Unlike typical teen movie stars, who look like movie stars, Ms. Powley actually looks like a fifteen year-old, though she is actually in her early twenties.
The diary of the title is kept in a book and audio tapes, and its narrative is a principal vehicle of the story, as well as a ticking time bomb waiting to be discovered by mom. Gloeckner and Heller are too artistically honest to portray Minnie as a helpless victim of her much older lover. Instead, she is an active, indeed agressive participant in their mutual seduction. Monroe, her mother's handsome boyfriend is more feckless than sinister.
Minnie is both proud and ashamed of her conquest. She thinks that there should be some adult telling her how to behave, but between her clueless mother, who can't get beyond "it's your life," and a couple of other exploitative psuedo-parental types she gets neither the love she desperately wants nor any sensible guidance.
Once unleashed, her sexuality dominates her life. She pursues and seduces a contemporary who is first drawn to her but ultimately intimidated by the ferocity of her desire. Her life disintegrates as the diary is revealed, Mom and Monroe hatch a crackpot scheme for her to marry Monroe, and she flees to drugs and an even more exploitative lover. The one bright spot is that she has discovered that she loves the art of the graphical novel, and has a talent for it.
The movie ends on a more upbeat note than the book, but for those who can't help but love the heroine, there seems to be an upbeat ending in the author's subsequent life. She gets an education and becomes a professor and successful medical illustrator, and is now likely to get more recognition as an author.
This movie is harrowing, and ought to scare the hell out of any parent of a teenage daughter, but it is relentlessly true and wise. Minnie's story is a compelling one, told with wit and compassion.
Because of the rawness of the subject matter, this movie may well be too hot for Hollywood to like during Oscar season, but actress, director, and writer are all very worthy contenders.