Critics Four Corners: THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL

The nationwide release of Marielle Heller’s film version of Phoebe Gloeckner’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl calls for unique EatDrinkFilms coverage, because of its vital candor and because it is deeply set in San Francisco — it’s an instant addition to the SF movie canon. We’ve gathered four writers, some with direct connections to Gloeckner and to Diary‘s genesis, some with strong connections to grrrl culture and the comics world, and all with passionate ties to, and writerly histories within, The City. Continue reading

THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL: From the Inside Out

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.

Two women and one girl: Bel Powley, Phoebe Gloeckner and Minnie from Gloeckner's The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Two women and one girl: Bel Powley, Phoebe Gloeckner and Minnie from Gloeckner’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

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.

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Dodie by Neil

Portrait by Neil LeDoux

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.Horizontal RuleTo learn more about The Diary of a Teenage Girl and its author Phoebe Gloeckner:

THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL: Discovery, Channeled

by Janelle Hessig

As a fan of the illustrated novel on which The Diary Of A Teenage Girl is based, I was equal parts ecstatic and nervous when I learned this film was being made. How could they make a movie about a teenage girl having an affair with her mom’s boyfriend without whitewashing it? Would they turn protagonist Minnie Goetz into a victim? Was To Catch A Predator host Chris Hanson going to present a disclaimer at the end?

A page from Phoebe Gloeckner's The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

A page from Phoebe Gloeckner’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Just as Minnie Goetz has no reliable adult supervision, viewers of The Diary Of A Teenage Girl are similarly left with no one manning the morality lighthouse. Our narrator is a teenage girl’s libido uncensored, unfiltered by hindsight, and we’re left alone to make our own judgements. Against a convincing backdrop of ’70s San Francisco, Minnie is left to decipher the mysteries of love and her burgeoning sexuality using only her own innate tools—curiosity, insecurity, and rampant teenage horniness.

Bel Powley as Minnie in The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Bel Powley as Minnie in The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

They couldn’t have found a more ideal actress to play Minnie than British newcomer Bel Powley. Powley’s moonpie face and saucer eyes (looking uncannily similar to Gloeckner’s teenage self portraits) are the perfect reflection of curiosity and discovery. Minnie snaps a Polaroid of her post-coital face after losing her virginity to Monroe. She hangs the photo by her mirror and regards it as another clue—does she look different? Are there outward signs of her transformation? Can people tell? These are the moments in the film that make it feel like one of the first authentic female coming-of-age stories, one that too few filmmakers have bothered to tell before.

Bel Powley as Minnie and Kristen Wiig as Charlotte in The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Bel Powley as Minnie and Kristen Wiig as Charlotte in The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Kristen Wiig plays a convincing swinging single ’70s mom without presenting a villain or a clown. No small feat for a comedic actress, especially when you factor in the potential slapstick inherent in playing a drunk mom in polyester, cleaning the house on cocaine. But Wiig reins it in like a champ.

Hottie handicap: Alexander Skarsgård as Monroe in The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Hottie handicap: Alexander Skarsgård as Monroe in The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Alexander Skarsgård does a fine job as mom’s boyfriend/daughter deflowerer Monroe without playing it creepy or heavy-handed. Just a guy doing his thing and hoping not to get caught. However, is a textbook dreamboat the best choice for this character? He never fully transcends his hottie handicap and I found it to be the one aspect that didn’t ring true.

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Hottie handicap: Alexander Skarsgård as Monroe in The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Minnie (Bel Powley) with Kimmie (Madeleine Waters) in the film version of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and the arrival of Tabitha in Phoebe Gloeckner’s book.

Minnie’s friends don’t prove helpful as a source of comfort or guidance. They’re all in the same boat as she is, only some are sunk even deeper. Best friend Kimmie talks about sex with the same sense of importance as she talks about flat-ironing her hair. Street kid Tabitha attempts to pimp Minnie out in exchange for quaaludes. How any of us ever make it out of teenage girlhood alive is a mystery.

Comic book heroines: Minnie (Bel Powley) discovers Aline Kominsky in a shop that looks suspiciously like The Magazine in The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Comic book heroines: Minnie (Bel Powley) discovers Aline Kominsky in a shop that looks suspiciously like The Magazine in The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Minnie finally unearths a cipher once she discovers underground comic books and the work of Aline Kominsky-Crumb. In the end, the world finally begins to take shape for her and gives her a purpose. This is the type of “happy ending” that many filmgoers (myself included) have long been dreaming about.

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Credit: Janelle Hessig.

Credit: Janelle Hessig.

Janelle Hessig was born on a dark and stormy night in Contra Costa County. It was Groundhog’s Day but she did not see her shadow on the way out. She remained in the Bay Area to become a writer, musician, cartoonist, and townie. She is the Marketing Director at Last Gasp in San Francisco and founded the publishing company Gimme Action in 2014.

Also in this issue, read other reviews about  The Diary of a Teenage Girl by Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian, Lynn Rapoport and Trina Robbins.

Horizontal RuleTo learn more about The Diary of a Teenage Girl and its author Phoebe Gloeckner:

THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL: A Bette Davis Sort of 15 (or THAT DARN CAT!)

by Kevin Killian

Bel Powley has pillow lips and enormous eyes, wide and nicely spaced; her eyes do her acting for her the way that, back in Hollywood’s Golden Age, Bette Davis’ eyes worked for her: slightly protruding, always alert, they register the slightest emotion like a thunderbolt has hit the screen; the nervous system jumping into a system of visual shows and tells that can get fatiguing after awhile — at least people got tired of Bette Davis, and refused her Oscars for All About Eve and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, but Bel Powley doesn’t have to worry about middle age yet, she has it all over Kristin Wiig, who plays her mother in Diary of a Teenage Girl, the new feature based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s renowned 2002 graphic novel, and laid, like Tales of the City, in the San Francisco of the Bicentennial years: fern bars, promiscuous sex, and young people living by their wits while confronting the slightly sinister charms of their more seasoned love partners.

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These monsters are real: A panel from Phoebe Gloeckner’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and the main characters from Marielle Heller’s film version.

Powley plays Minnie, a school girl attending what looks like the Harvey Milk Photo Center on Scott Street, but must be a private prep school like the one Alysia Abbott attends in Fairyland, her own memoir of growing up fast as the daughter of a flighty, drug-addled parent. Wiig is perfectly fine playing the mother, but the screenplay gives her only one scene (sort of like the Bechtel test) in which she’s not interacting either with Minnie or with Monroe, her adorable boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård). Well, he’s sort of adorable, but the movie opens with Minnie, who looks like she’s 15 or so—a Bette Davis sort of 15—announcing that she’s just had sex for the first time, with her mom’s boyfriend. I actually think they fudge Minnie’s age a little bit in the movie, while they make Monroe more sympathetic than he is in the book, and the drug and sex scenes, while hypnotic and well-handled, are nowhere near as existential as in Gloeckner’s original. There’s a Hitchcock-type appearance by Gloeckner, who appears seated at a fern bar, shocked by what she overhears from Wiig, Powley and Skarsgaard having one of their showdown scenes, but she might almost be registering, “What happened to my monsters?”

Minnie (Bel Powley), with Iggy but without “Domino,” in the film version of The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Minnie (Bel Powley), with Iggy but without “Domino,” in the film version of The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

I was enchanted by the way the movie made San Francisco look as if forty years of development had been shaved off like a bad perm. I spent the summer in San Francisco in 1976, the summer Elvis died, I was here, and the filmmakers have it almost exactly the way I remember. I didn’t like the cat, “Domino,” much. But Domino, like Kristen Wiig, gets sort of shortchanged in the movie. He has one big scene within the first minutes of the picture, when Minnie asks him, “Do I look different today now that I’ve had sex than I did yesterday?” and he makes a revolted face—the only piece of CGI in the movie that doesn’t succeed. And then you never see him again. Most of the time, cats in movies just get bigger and better feels every time they appear. The movie is a triumph for the actors and director, it hurts but not too much, and it looks fantastic, but that darn cat must belong to someone on the set who has an overinflated opinion of his beauty and talent. It’s like Darryl F. Zanuck trying to persuade the public that Irina Demick or Genevieve Gilles is a great actress. Just doesn’t fly.

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Kevin Killian as Mr. Green in Phoebe Gloeckner's The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Kevin Killian as Mr. Green in Phoebe Gloeckner’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Kevin Killian, one of the original New Narrative writers, is the head of the SF Poets Theater. He has written fifteen books and up next are a book of stories from Semiotext(e); a sequel to his recent collection (Tagged) of nude photographs of poets and artists, and Eyewitness, an as-told-to book by the ’50s poetry legend Carolyn Dunn (Granary Books).

Also in this issue, read other reviews about  The Diary of a Teenage Girl by Dodie Bellamy, Janelle Hessig, Kevin Killian, Lynn Rapoport and Trina Robbins.

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THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL: Beating Hearts in SF

by Lynn Rapoport

Past landmarks: The cover page of Phoebe Gloeckner's The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Past landmarks: The cover page of Phoebe Gloeckner’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

In 1976, the year in which Marielle Heller sets her portrait of the artist as a young girl — adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s semi-autobiographical 2002 graphic novel, The Diary of a Teenage Girl — the spirit of the bicentennial was surely alive somewhere in San Francisco. No one, though, seems to be celebrating in this particular version of the city, which has at its center other landmarks in a life.

It’s a version in which 15-year-old girls can wander in and out of Polk Street fern bars, practicing their “prostitute walk” and propositioning men, doing lines at parties with the adults tasked with their supervision, and the young girl and artist in question, Minnie Goetze (played with precise conviction and adorability by Bel Powley), can convert her sketchpad bedroom fantasies into real-life experience by hitting the bar on two-for-one Tuesday with her mother’s 35-year-old boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). “Oh Monroe,” Minnie dreamily soliloquizes after getting absent-mindedly felt up by him on the couch late one night. “Pitter-pat. You touched my tit. How was that?”

Two-for-one: Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) and Minnie (Bel Powley) hit the bar in The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Two-for-one: Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) and Minnie (Bel Powley) hit the bar in The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

And with that, for better and probably also for worse, something else gets converted: The skin-crawling sensation of watching a quasi-incestuous interlude lit by late-night television recedes somewhat, as Heller steadily diverts our attention to Minnie’s droll post-grope introspections and the thing that Heller is more interested in: a young girl’s rash, sometimes fumbling, occasionally repulsed explorations of her own sexuality, both its power over those around her and its more visceral dividends.

A post-virginity Minnie (Bel Powley) in The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

A post-virginity Minnie (Bel Powley) in The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

The film’s opening shot telegraphs this through line: trailing Minnie’s ass during an exuberant walk home through Golden Gate Park as she replays in wonderment the afternoon’s events, announcing to herself in voice-over, still astounded: “I had sex today. Ho-ly shit.” Watching Minnie eye a cluster of boys passing, a braless jogger, an amorous couple on a picnic blanket, we see the world as she does, hazy with pheromones and potential.

Bachelor sad: Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) beds Minnie (Bel Powley) in his Scottie Ferguson-like apartment in The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Bachelor sad: Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) beds Minnie (Bel Powley) in his Scottie Ferguson-like apartment in The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

At that moment, anyway. Her take on the world is circumstantial, emotions flashing by in passage, like the images in one of the X-rated flipbooks she constructs. Later she’s raging in the bathtub against Monroe’s inconstancy; sharing heartfelt imaginary confidences with Twisted Sisters comic artist Aline Kominsky (R. Crumb unapologetically sidelined here); silently digesting bad advice doled out by her party-girl mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig); or wistfully remarking, “I wish I knew someone who’s happy…” Later still, Heller captures the exact moment an infatuation dies, draining away out of Minnie’s incredibly expressive eyes.

Tape

An archive lives: Bel Powley as Minnie in the film version The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and panels from Phoebe Gloeckner's book.

An archive lives: Bel Powley as Minnie in the film version The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and panels from Phoebe Gloeckner’s book.

Lucky for us that she records her impressions first on a series of tape cassettes, her narration to some barely outlined future self and a big-boned cat on the bed standing in for the three-ring binder of Gloeckner’s novel, stuffed with loose-leaf, crawling with proto-comic sketches that in the film creep, animated, into the frame during daydreams and acid trips. In its immediacy, the film fends off any sense of the nostalgia, regret, or decades-old embarrassment that such an archive might churn up someday. Instead, from a remove, watching an artful retelling, we can see that Minnie is right, in her adolescent certainty, that—acute dangers of discovery notwithstanding—all this will still matter when it surfaces in a box under a bed in some future, grown-up version of the city in which she has adventured.

Minnie (Bel Powley) puts pen to paper in The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Minnie (Bel Powley) puts pen to paper in The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Getting better: Minnie (Bel Powley) at the beach in The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Getting better: Minnie (Bel Powley) at the beach in The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Fittingly, Heller’s film is tidier than Gloeckner’s chaotic, worrying, ambiguous recounting—indicative, maybe, of the narrative challenges of such a sprawling, inconsistent text as a diary, or of market forces, but also, maybe, a reflection of Heller’s own solicitous wishes for Minnie. If you fell for her on the pages that her grown, incarnate counterpart inked and wrote, having somehow made it to adulthood, you might want to give her a story that offered answers to at least a few of her poignant, hilarious, stream-of-consciousness queries about life, love, sex, and Aline Kominsky.

No doubt Minnie’s version of the city still sometimes manifests today, though the fern bars are ironic, the bouncers warier, the rehabbed Victorians full of helicopter parents reading magazine articles about their freaked-out, nature-deprived, micromanaged children. It’s hard to imagine a Minnie set loose upon the city long enough to gather material for a one-sheet comic, let alone a full-length Diary, but the closing words of Heller’s film—“This is for all the girls when they have grown”—imply she’s certain they’re out there still.

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Credit: Portrait of Lynn Rapoport by Michael McConnell.

Credit: Portrait of Lynn Rapoport by Michael McConnell.

Lynn Rapoport has written about film for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Fandor, SF360, and io9.

Also in this issue, read other reviews about  The Diary of a Teenage Girl by Dodie Bellamy, Janelle Hessig, Kevin Killian, and Trina Robbins.

Horizontal RuleTo learn more about The Diary of a Teenage Girl and its author Phoebe Gloeckner: