#52filmsbywomen is a great campain by Women in Film http://womeninfilm.org/52-films/?id=1 to highlight the great cinema that has been made by female directors as well as the huge deficit in representation without a huge deficit in talent. The pledge is simple: to watch a film directed by a woman each week for a year. To aid me on my quest is Anna, a feminist and activist who switched me onto the campaign and wants to use this as an excuse to get into a wide range of cinema.
SPOILERS for Diary of a Teenage Girl follow.
Ben Flanagan: Marielle Heller’s directorial debut Diary of a Teenage Girl was released last year to almost universal acclaim. Its tidy 94% on Rotten Tomatoes indicates greatness which the film supplied: it is full of great wit, formalist invention and emotional truthfulness. The buzz I heard around the film again and again was ‘This film should be required viewing for every teenager,’ and with big names (Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgård) putting in great performances and an instantly relatable story of a young girl finding herself amongst the social mores of 1970s California, Diary of a Teenage Girl feels like a big hit. And yet until its DVD release last month I hadn’t met a single person in the UK who had seen it. This seems partly to have been down to the fact that the film was awarded an 18 certificate by the BBFC, effectively preventing it from reaching its target audience. That’s a shame for the producers, and a big fault of the BBFC; one of the most impressive things about Diary is how non-exploitative and unsexual the nudity is, which could have been a problem considering it is about a 15 year old girl’s relationship with her mother’s 35 year old boyfriend, and features a hell of a lot of drug use. So there’s plenty of content here for adults too, and yet we shied away from this one at the cinema. Why do you think this was? And what did you think of the film? Did it strike the right tone? Did it resonate? As long as nobody mentions porking!
Anna Devereux: I also hadn’t met a person who had seen this film until I went to a screening of Diary last week – but more importantly I have yet to meet a teenager who has seen this film. Diary’s absent audience, I would say, must be the fault of the BBFC rating: the film was marketed at teenagers, and marketed very well. Through the trailer runs vaults of wild teenage energy, the tone is insatiably giddy and eagerly emotional even in those three minutes. So as a result you have the target audience geared up to see this film which they are actually banned from seeing: then you have those who can see it, the over-eighteens, at whom the film is not primarily targeted, and so they might not be so wholly drawn to it.
For me, the film made up for an entire teenage hood devoid of accurate teenage representations. In my generation we were searching to find ourselves in film, TV and fiction, so we ended up stretching to relate to the likes of Kat Stratford or Cady Heron, meaning that so many girls ended up spending their days trying to model themselves to these women, rather than enjoying the madness of adolescence. Diary’s Minnie Goetz is the first truly recognisable teenage girl on screen, you feel as if you’ve known her all your teenage years: despite the crazy events of her life, she is an adolescent girl in earnest, she is one of us.
I want to focus on your comment how Diary is ‘non-exploitative and unsexual’. Its refusal to exploit Minnie is one of the many profound aspects of this film, and this is clarified in the lack of a moral tale to the plot. The star Bel Powley said herself in an interview with Vice that there is no lesson to take from the film, that Minnie’s actions, though they defy so many societal expectations, are not to be punished. This is entirely unique in female film portrayals, there have been so many films which ultimately betray the teenagers they pretend to be representing (The Breakfast Club, never forget) that a film such as Diary seemed an impossibility to me. However, I don’t know that the nudity should be labelled ‘unsexual’. Diary unapologetically celebrates teenage sexuality, and whilst the sex scenes certainly aren’t sexual in the way that they’d have queues of people waiting to discuss how hot Minnie’s arse is, there is a more honest sexuality to it. When Minnie observes her body in the mirror this is sexual for her, and for the women watching it this moment can also be sexual because they will be thinking about their body, about how it feels, about the power it holds. Powley puts this exquisitely in the same vice interview, ‘It’s like trying on being sexualised and being an adult but not quite knowing how to wear it.’ Powley also criticises how boys are brought up on films, such as American Pie, that allow them conformation of the normality of their sexual thoughts, whereas women are taught that thoughts about sex, masturbation, whatever, are weird and gross and unattractive. The film is sexual but it is sexual for teenage girls because it allows them to embrace fully their tabooed thoughts. This film was obviously a big deal for women. As a man were there any moments which struck a tone with you in particular?
BF: I’ll give that perhaps it is wrong to think of the nudity in the film as beign entirely ‘unsexual’. The sex scenes with Monroe are passionate; it is first love, how could it not be? It is more the scenes of Minnie in the mirror that in my view avoid sexualisation. The content, as you so put, does express a sexuality in its presentation of a young girl exploring her own body. Perhaps the word I should have used is ‘Unerotic’, and so to explain why that scene itself is not erotic, I would like to use a comparative example from a film that seems to fluctuate in terms of appreciation but consistently seems to resonate with teenagers, American Beauty. Sam Mendes’ film explores the hidden lives of suburban nobodies, and one of its sub-plots follows Thora Birch as Jane Burnham, daughter of Humbert-like Lester (Kevin Spacey). She is a pretty normal kid who develops an attraction to Ricky Fitz, the peeping tom who moves in next door. This builds to a scene in which Jane strips for him through the window, her burgeoning sexuality rearing its head. But the fact that she does it for a fully clothed man, who is holding a camera no less, gives the scene an inherently more seedy and erotic meaning. Showing her stripping slowly creates more of a fantasy, and the shot lingers on Birch’s body so that it is even visible (on a television screen) in shots that focus on Ricky’s reaction. The equivalent scene in Diary of a Teenage Girl, by comparison, starts with Minnie naked and allows the scene to remain a private moment. She is allowed to find herself on her own terms. It is a scene about sex, but it isn’t eroticised.
But to answer your question about moments which struck a tone: damn, there’s a lot of good stuff. Minnie being the very initiator of the tryst had me impressed early on, and then drawing an X on Monroe’s leg in her own blood? That sold her to me as a real character. ‘I’m better than you, you son of a bitch,’ is a moment that will go down in history, as will the aforementioned ‘Pork’ scene. But the highlight for me is the acid scene, which is where the true nature and status of the Minnie/Monroe becomes clear. It is a scene in which Minnie levitates in a way that recalls Tarkovsky, The Tree of Life, and perfectly captures the grace and femininity that rests within Minnie, who becomes Mother Nature for a moment. This is the kind of film reference I like, where rather than homaging a particular scene or shot, Heller has used the visual lineage of film history to strengthen the symbolism of her own film. Its really exciting to see and for a first time filmmaker she pulls of the visuals with superb confidence.
In fact one of the strongest elements of the film is its interaction with animated sequences (Minnie is an aspiring cartoonist). There was a moment early on when I wondered if this was going to be an American Mad Fat Diary. After all, it shares a similar coming-of-age theme, with a confessional voiceover, and scenes of magical realism that mix animation with reality. But although Mad Fat is sex-positive, it betrays its audience by being at best cartoonish in its depiction of sex and sexuality, and at its worst a patronising Public Service Announcement . Diary of a Teenage Girl has moments of broad humour too, but it is all embedded deep within characters with a real psychological makeup. They act like real people and the film is so refreshing for it.
But we haven’t really talked outside of Minnie. What do you think the film was trying to say in the relationship with the Mother, played by Kristen Wiig? Thats an enormous part of the movie that we haven’t even begun to unpack yet. I’m also interested to hear if there’s anything that didn’t work quite as well as the film seems to have done overall for you.
AD: Unerotic is absolutely the word, Minnie is as sexual as she wants to be without any exploitation of it by the director or by her audience.
The humour is totally as you explained; as an audience when we laugh we are not being queued to do it. There aren’t jokes, but rather comical real-life moments (even porked!) We laugh because Minnie herself is a funny girl. Powley and Heller both speak of wanting to honour the fictional Minnie and of her being a real presence in their lives, and I feel that this is clear in both the direction and acting, we really get to know Minnie, she charms us completely. Her hungry eyes and youthful lisp enhance the comedy of adolescence, even in the most serious and heartbreaking of scenes, such as when Monroe tries to end their affair. Her lisped outrage of “I think we need to talk about our relationship!” paired with her adult-mimicking posture of hands on hips cannot help but evoke laughter.
Powley actually cites Minnie and Charlotte’s (her mother) relationship as being equally important within the film as Minnie/Monroe. Their interaction is very accurate in terms of teenager parent relationships, the awkwardness and the intimacy of their relationship is in constant battle. One of the most comically indulgent scenes is when Minnie arrives how to find her mother drunk. Whilst her mother showers her with affection Minnie reflects on how this was common until the overly-analytical step dad Pascal observes that “There’s something sexual about Minnie’s need for physical affection – it’s not natural,” to a horrified Charlotte. This intimacy/awkwardness conflict resonates within all of their scenes together, Minnie holds back from her mother any deeper details of her life: although of course this is majorly to do with her controversial relationship, there is a tone present of a normal teenage girl who simply can’t overcome her natural adolescent discomfort. This continues until that fantastic reunion scene, when the pair embrace, hold each other’s faces, and share their emotions without reserve. The only taboo left is the Minnie/Monroe relationship – “I can’t talk about that… ever” – which is understandable considering the circumstances. This scene is extraordinarily tactile: we feel Charlotte’s coat against Minnie’s mouth as she tries to apologise, the tears and hair and skin as Charlotte strokes her daughter’s face. Even when Charlotte slaps Minnie, the physicality of this action is relieving: she is sober, and her physical action is honest and intimate, it impacts on the audience all the grief, shock and ultimate relief which engulfs the pair in this meeting.
BF: The relationship with the mother is very well drawn, and though I agree that scene with Pascal ‘There’s something… sexual,’ is hilarious, I do think there’s an element of matriarchal emulation going on in Minnie’s psychology; starting to rebel and expose herself to the real world just as we learn her mother did similarly. ‘I was married at your age!’ She laughs in one scene. It may be this kind of outlook being passed on to Minnie which drives her attraction to Monroe, at least at first. The payoff to their relationship is as great as you describe it, although the scene that instigates the climax of the film, in which Minnie walks in on Charlotte listening to the tapes in her bedroom, seems to come out of nowhere. Charlotte isn’t the sort to tidy her daughter’s room, so she wouldn’t have stumbled upon the tapes, and if she was going snooping then I’m not sure the catalyst for her to do so is made fully clear. I get that she needs to discover the diary for the story to work, but of all the plot elements that seemed the least organic to me, the only moment where I was watching a ‘film’ instead of real characters.
I don’t want to sound too nitpicky though as Diary is a really important film and hopefully a watershed moment in what was undeniably a watershed year for cinema. This film carries an extra significance because it is so accessible and, in terms of visual language, structure and even the character types, almost a conventional film. But Heller’s ability to subvert expectations succeeds simply by telling it right in every scene, imbuing each moment with lust, pain, warm humour and truth. That the journey of self-discovery that Minnie goes on is revolutionary not only because of what she learns about belief and love and being a human, but because subject matter usually reserved for the art cinema is told in a way that every single person can watch and enjoy. And I hope that now it’s more readily available, they do.
AD: I would agree that Charlotte’s snooping seems fairly implausible given our knowledge of her character. There are various points which might indicate her capability of such actions: her evident curiosity regarding her daughter’s secretive sex life, and of course we know that Pascal has insinuated to her his belief that Minnie and Monroe are engaged in a relationship. There is justification for her paranoia, but for this plot move to have really worked there needed to be something more concrete behind it than what we are shown. To say that this is the only flaw we each have discovered in Diary is a fantastic achievement in itself, the efforts of the cast and of Heller to stay true to Minnie and her experiences have evidently paid off.
Everything else about this film is real. Even in those moments where the visuals divulge into animations resound strongly with truth. The cartoons are used to clarify Minnie the most intense sensations of Minnie’s experiences.When Tabitha brings Minnie to Mike’s flat (assumingly to ‘lend’ Minnie to him in exchange for ludes) it is his transformation into a leering greenish cartoon figure which confirms his character as a threat. Just as there is nothing subtle about coming of age, Minnie’s world is presented to us via the most graphic, colour-shrouded, unsubtle techniques, so that we may fully understand the weight which all of these episodes have on our protagonist.
Before Diary, every film I watched which spoke about women in a new and relevant way – Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha for example – turned out to be directed by a man. I cannot emphasise enough how The Diary of a Teenage Girl is unlike any film I have previously witnessed, and this is thanks to a woman being the director of it. No matter how accurate the intuition of male directors exploring female experiences might be, none of their films touch Heller’s in terms of truth, accuracy and understanding. To be quite honest, it was hugely relieving to finally be able to cite a woman as the director of such an important film for womankind. Such moments as this are dishearteningly rare in the film industry, so when one does come along the gratefulness I, and I’m sure many of my fellow women, feel towards whoever enabled such a film to happen, and to the director for executing so perfectly women’s previously marginalised experiences, is overwhelming.