Back to School Part II #47: The Diary of a Teenage Girl (dir by Marielle Heller)


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Sometimes, the best way to defend a controversial film is to take a look at some of the people who have criticized it.  That’s certainly the case with 2015’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

First off, you have so-called critic and professional troll Jeff Wells, who landed in some hot water when he complained that the star of the film, Bel Powley, wasn’t attractive enough for him.  Never mind that he thought the rest of the film was intriguing, he simply could not get over the fact that Powley was not conventionally attractive.  Never mind, of course, that Powley (who was 23 at the time) was supposed to be playing a 15 year-old and that she gave one of the best and most honest performances of the year or that the film itself was about much more than just sex.  Jeff Wells wasn’t turned on and therefore, by his logic, the film failed.

And then you have Sasha Stone, the editor of Awards Daily.  Sasha claims to be a feminist and uses her site to regularly scold any actress who she thinks isn’t living up to Sasha’s idea of what a feminist should be.  Sasha is the same blogger who announced that her life mission was to “educate” Shailene Woodley and who threatened to never again report on any of Susan Sarandon’s movies because Sarandon was critical of Hillary Clinton.  Oddly enough, Sasha is also the online film community’s number one enabler of Jeff Wells, regularly providing cover for him whenever he makes one of his patented misogynistic remarks.

Anyway, Sasha absolutely hated The Diary of a Teenage Girl.  In fact, she hated it to such an extent that she’s probably still cursing about it on twitter.  Oddly enough, Sasha has never really stated why she hates Diary with such a passion.  I mean, here we have an honest film about coming-of-age, one that ends on a note of empowerment.  It’s a film that was both written and directed by a woman and it’s based on a graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner.  This is an important film.  As far as I can tell, it appears that Sasha’s hatred was linked to the fact that apparently, she saw the film in a theater that was full of men and she felt that this film was specifically designed to appeal to “dirty old men.”

Which is bullshit.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m sure there are dirty old men who went to see The Diary of a Teenage Girl.  That’s just a fact of life.  When you have a film about a sexually active 15 year-old, it is going to attract certain people.  That, however, is not the film’s fault.  In fact, the film’s straight-forward approach to sexuality was probably the exact opposite of what most of those pervs were looking for.

The film’s protagonist is Minnie Goetze (played, as previously stated, by Bel Powley).  In 1976, she is 15 years old and living in San Francisco with her irresponsible (and, as becomes apparent as the film plays out, rather unstable) mother (Kristin Wiig).  Minnie is an aspiring cartoonist, an independent and intelligent teenager who often feels as if she’s separated from the rest of the world.  (The film makes good use of animation to visualize Minnie’s isolation.)  After losing her virginity to him, Minnie ends up having an affair with her mother’s handsome loser of a boyfriend (played by Alexander Skarsgard)….

When The Diary of a Teenage Girl was first released, so much attention was paid to the fact that 15 year-old Minnie was sexually active and frequently seen using drugs that many reviewers missed the fact that the film ultimately celebrates Minnie’s intelligence, independence, and her imagination.  Speaking for myself, after sitting through a countless number of teen films which either idealized virginity or insisted on punishing any sexually active teen with either pregnancy or an STD, The Diary of a Teenage Girl was actually a welcome change of pace.

Unfortunately, many critics have made the mistake of assuming that just because The Diary of a Teenage Girl does not judge, it therefore supports all of Minnie’s decisions.  Despite what some critics claim, Diary of a Teenage Girl does not glamorize anything that Minnie does.  (Many of the film’s sex scenes are deliberately filmed to be as unerotic as possible.)  At the same time, the film doesn’t feel the need to dispense out any sort of karmic punishment, either.  Instead, it’s a film that suggests that Minnie, like everyone else, is exploring and trying to discover what’s right for her.  In the end, the message of this film is that the most important thing is to love yourself and to find your own happiness.  And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is an engrossing and well-made coming-of-age story.  I can’t wait to see what director Marielle Heller does next.

 

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