Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Palmer's film is that rare concert doc that isn't for established fans only.
Coming-of-age stories told from a girl's perspective tend to go a couple of predictable ways: A girl expresses her sexuality and disaster ensues, leading to promiscuity, drug use, pregnancy, hooking up under the freeway, etc. Or, the story focuses on the "first love" aspect, the explosion of intense emotions (and hormones), bathed in the lens flare of nostalgia. But what about a story where a girl explores her sexuality with enthusiasm (just like a boy would), and disaster does NOT ensue? Those stories are harder to come by, although they are out there. "Diary of a Teenage Girl," from first-time writer/director Marielle Heller (based on the novel by Phoebe Gloeckner), is one of those stories. It's a refreshing, and, sadly, rare take on a girl coming into her own. Once Minnie (played by Bel Powley, in a major performance) discovers how great sex is, she wants more of it. Her choices are not always smart (she's only 15), her partner is wildly inappropriate for her (not to mention illegal), but Heller has spoken about how she wanted to allow for complexity. The result is a film that is funny and sad, scary and sweet, disturbing and revelatory.
"Diary of a Teenage Girl" starts with Minnie walking through the park with a triumphant smile on her face. She says in voiceover, "I had sex today...Holy shit!" She smiles at strangers, people picnicking, throwing a Frisbee around, and the whole world seems beautiful. It's San Francisco in the mid-1970s. The times are loose, the mood is wild. Minnie's mother (Kristen Wiig, in yet another performance that proves she can do anything) is bitter and narcissistic, raising two daughters alone, as she parties, does drugs, and cavorts through a laissez-faire relationship with Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). Minnie, absorbing the seething adult sexuality around her, is curious about sex, and eggs Monroe on to take her virginity. Which he promptly does, with only token resistance.
Here is where many viewers will put on the brakes. Monroe is in his 30s, involved with Minnie's mother, and Minnie is still a minor. But as the title suggests, this is a story told from Minnie's point of view. You could look at Minnie's pursuit of Monroe as a way of getting back at her mother, but Heller doesn't muddy up the waters with psychological explanations. It's enough to Minnie that Monroe is hot, he has a cool mustache, her hormones are raging, and Monroe doesn't turn her down when she comes on to him.
There's a difference between portraying behavior and endorsing behavior, but often movies and filmmakers get caught up in crossfires of controversy and confusion. Did "Wolf of Wall Street" endorse misogyny or was it a portrayal of a world where misogyny ran rampant? Did "Zero Dark Thirty" endorse torture? Or was it a story told from within the community that did not question torture's use? When 2009's "Observe and Report" came out, a controversy ensued about one scene where Seth Rogen's character has sex with Anna Faris, who is so wasted she is clearly unable to consent. The scene is disturbing, but it ends with a huge laugh, and therein was the problem. Did "Observe and Report" endorse date rape then? Where you come down on this issue is dependent on a lot of different factors, personal taste, political/social opinions and your feelings on what role art should play in our culture. Some feel art needs to be inspirational or educational: Films have a responsibility to show the consequences of bad behavior. Films should portray the world as it should be, not as it is. A film is dangerous if it does not point an arrow at bad behavior telegraphing "Don't do this." There aren't any wrong answers, but the problem comes when the same set of criteria is used for all works of art. The purpose of the old ABC Afterschool Specials was to warn kids about the dangers that were out there. But are all films to be judged with the same set of rules? Context matters. "Diary of a Teenage Girl" is bound to stir up some controversy along these lines. Does it endorse a 35-year-old man sleeping with a 15-year-old? Shouldn't she or he be made to "pay" for it in order to show the wrong-ness of the situation? But that opening scene, showing Minnie strolling through the sunshine, smiling to herself, loving the world, sets the mood and tells us the film's attitude towards the story that is about to unfold.