Just like “Ophelia,” in John Millais’s 1852 painting, submerging in the waters, so too 15-year-old Minnie Goetze floats and then descends the depths of her bathtub. We see her nude body sinking down the blue-green of her own misery only to resurface as a finely-drawn portrait by the same Minnie Goetze. Welcome to “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” based upon the book of the same title by cartoonist and writer Phoebe Gloeckner. This is Gloeckner’s fictionalized account of her sexual awakening, circa 1976, at the age of 15 at the hands of a 35-year-old man, the boyfriend of her mother. By all counts, this is a story of rape and incest. Through poetic license, the raw source material is transcended and another transformative story rises from the brackish waters from which it came. And it is up to audiences if they will accept such a journey.
Phoebe Gloeckner took her reality of rape and incest and shaped it into fiction. And then writer-director Marielle Heller took that fiction and adapted it for her film. With a safe distance from the actual events and persons, an uninhibited and honest story is possible. It turns out that 15-year-old Minnie Goetze appears to be empowered by the sexual relationship with 35-year-old Monroe. It’s San Francisco in 1976, experimentation with sex and drugs is in the forefront. Minnie, ill-equipped to navigate through the loopy zeitgeist, finds herself lost and on a classic downward spiral: she has a threesome, drops acid and performs oral sex in a bar bathroom while pretending to be a prostitute. All this happens without any judgment placed upon her.
This is a complicated film. It is, after all, adapted from a complicated, and quite extraordinary, prose and comics hybrid. It can not be encouraged enough that, if the movie grabs your interest, then you must read the book. In a one-of-kind fictionalized memoir, Phoebe Gloeckner expresses her story in a way that you need to read to believe. In the end, her goal was to create a greater truth. The movie follows closely but, my its very nature, tells a story with a different tone and view. Gloeckner addresses these shifts from her work to the film in this insightful interview with the A.V. Club right here.
Bel Powley portrays Minnie with a wide-eyed broad innocence. In somewhat a similar sense, so does Kristen Wig as Minnie’s mother, Charlotte. And, in his own way, so does Alexander Skarsgård as Monroe, Minnie’s predatory Lothario. It’s the self-conscious attempt to evoke the act of reading Gloeckner’s unique work that can be problematic. Gloeckner’s narrative is prose followed by an illustration followed by comics and more prose and so on. The crux of the problem of translating Gloeckner’s vision into film is that it really is virtually impossible: you are really walking into a land mine when you mix comics, film, and address rape and incest. Parts of the film seem to read as too cartoony when, paradoxically, the same scene in Gloeckner’s comics does not read so much as “cartoony” as simply entering a different world, reading something within a different world. The film, even if it doesn’t intend to, seems to take its subject too lightly.
Not to sound too much like Marshall McLuhan, but when you read comics, you are reading and, when you see something evoking the feeling of reading comics, which happens often in this film, you are reading the content and the medium, and that can be very distracting. It can also be a wonderful combination of distraction and entertainment like the multi-layered tribute to the grand curmudgeon Harvey Pekar in “American Splendor.” If you have a lighter subject, you can get away with much more. But with the double whammy subjects of rape and incest, it raises the stakes so high as to be a virtually insurmountable challenge. With all that said, this is a very unique film. All I can is that I’m happy to find that this 15-year-old character is in the very capable hands of 23-year-old Bel Powley.
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is a film that will definitely challenge you. But, keep in mind, to best appreciate what this film is doing, read Phoebe Gloeckner’s book. A new revised edition, published by North Atlantic Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, has just been released. You can find it at Amazon right here.