by Dodie Bellamy
From the margins I have watched many phases in the development of The Diary of a Teenage Girl. In the late ’90s Phoebe Gloeckner, who was a mainstay in the creative circle I hung out in at that time, signed up for the writing workshop I teach in my living room during the summer. She brought in pages from her actual high school diary, using the workshop as a sort of litmus test, asking if the material was interesting, wondering what she could make of it. I remember being impressed with the intelligence and sensitivity of her journals, thinking, rather jealously, I sound like a total ditz in my own high school journals. When the book came out I was even more impressed by how skillfully Phoebe crafted the winding meanderings of her journal into a compelling narrative. I talked the San Francisco Chronicle into allowing me to review it, hiding the fact that I was a friend of the author. “Minnie is one of the most believable teenage protagonists ever written,” I wrote, “a complicated, contradictory child posing as a woman.” I taught the book in a grad writing seminar at San Francisco State, worried the students were going to rebel at reading an illustrated novel about a teen girl, but they loved it, even the guys. One woman in the class was a middle school teacher, and a student found the book on her desk and all of the girls in her class were reading it and loving it. I was again impressed that Phoebe could manage to produce something embraced by both grad writing students and teen girls.
When I heard about the movie, I was hesitant. It would be so easy to screw up the uncompromising complexity of Phoebe’s novel. Happily, for the most part, given this is a film made for a mainstream audience, Marielle Heller has done a wonderful job protecting that complexity. Even though she keeps stepping into danger, Minnie is never portrayed as an agentless victim. Bel Powley is brilliant at steering Minnie towards ruin—and at remaining adorably childlike no matter how raunchy her behavior. Kristen Wiig is also wonderful as Minnie’s mother, evoking compassion while leading a fucked up, driven existence. Around the time the book came out, I met Phoebe’s mother. The first thing she said to me was, “I’m not as bad as Phoebe makes me out to be in her stories.” Watching Wiig’s charismatic performance, I thought—I bet Phoebe’s mother likes this portrayal of herself better. Alexander Skarsgård is totally dreamy—there’s no problem believing Minnie would fall in love with him—and his acting too is superb—I like that he’s portrayed as kind of a mess but not a bad guy. But perhaps somebody skeezier would have been better casting, somebody who would make the audience cringe a bit when he fucks Minnie, rather than fulfilling our collective desire for his acres of luscious naked flesh and boyish charm. I hope the movie is a big hit. It’s a much-needed antidote to all the sexual moralizing that’s being flung around these days.
Dodie Bellamy’s latest book is When the Sick Rule the World (via Amazon or Indiebound), from Semiotext(e). Her chapbook Barf Manifesto was named best book of 2009 under 30 pages by Time Out New York. Another chapbook, The Beating of Our Hearts, was included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. With Kevin Killian she is editing for Nightboat Books Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative 1977-1997.
Also in this issue, read other reviews about The Diary of a Teenage Girl by Janelle Hessig, Kevin Killian, Lynn Rapoport and Trina Robbins.To learn more about The Diary of a Teenage Girl and its author Phoebe Gloeckner:
- Visit the official Sony Pictures web site.
- IMDb.com’s listing for The Diary of a Teenage Girl.
- Follow The Diary of a Teenage Girl on Facebook and Twitter.
- Phoebe Gloeckner’s web site.
- Read more by Phoebe Gloeckner at Amazon and Indiebound.
- Follow Phoebe Gloeckner on Twitter.
- Follow Bel Powley on Twitter.
- Hear Terry Gross interview author Phoebe Gloeckner and filmmaker Marielle Heller on the NPR Fresh Air podcast.
- Read Peggy Orenstein’s discussion about Phoebe Gloeckner and Minnie from the New York times just before Diary was first published.