Well, I just went to see a comic book movie starring a largely unknown female protagonist that beautifully and unflinchingly documents a teenager’s monumentally fucked up coming-of-age story, without being judgmental about it. It is called The Diary of a Teenage Girl and it is a triumph of art over edifice.
Minnie Goetz (Bel Powley) loses her virginity at 15 to her mother’s 35 year old boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). Minnie’s awakening- “I had sex for the first time today. Holy shit!”- and attachment to a guy who is terrible for her are made complicated not so much because they needed to be hidden from her mother (Kristen Wiig) at any cost, but because it’s her life and she wants to deal with her shit by herself. The film isn’t about the rise and fall of Minnie’s love affair with Monroe- it’s about Minnie while the relationship is happening, that’s an important difference. Minnie is hurt by the bad and strengthened by the good and nobody is judged one way or another, just depicted. All the mistakes and all the successes lay there on the page and the actors tell you what they mean with their eyes and faces and actions rather than explanations or excuses. This movie speaks to every person who has something in their past they thought was wrong but did anyway for love. It is an incredibly powerful assurance that the rough patches in your life aren’t something to hide from, but there to teach you how to recognize what matters.
That this movie exists at all is a miracle. Phoebe Gloeckner wrote two autobiographical books of sequential art and prose in the late 90s/early aughts called A Child’s Life and The Diary of a Teenage Girl. They told the tale of her teenage fall from stability to chaos with shocking honesty. It is the kind of stuff you can’t read on the bus, you can’t bring up casually to mixed company, the kind of thing one would think you could never make a film of without truncating everything so much as to lose the point of telling the story. So it was originally reborn as a play, by the director for both stage and screen, Marielle Heller. Which means the core of the story is written to bring the audience into the life of the characters. And it does, the movie keeps that deep connection between viewer and actor alive, and the filmic aspect is all lovely flourishes. Locations that make the movie feel like a life, and just enough fantasy to make it feel like real life, Minnie’s perspective. What is Minnie’s perspective? She just wants to be loved, to be touched. Not going to apologize for it, or stop it because it inconveniences others, Minnie is claiming her life.
Never mind the source, the thing itself is an amazing movie. It elevates the coming-of-age story genre. “I think as a society, we’re just a little bit afraid of teenage girls, and we’re definitely afraid of their sexuality,” Heller told Vox Culture. “There’s a desire to shelter girls and also to ignore what they might be feeling or experiencing. The result of that is if you’re a teenage girl who’s having thoughts about sex, you think something’s wrong with you.” For every shitty mistake made by the comic book industry, there is another comic out there that proves the depth and the versatility of the medium is as viable as any other form of art. The Diary of a Teenage Girl not only does this for comic book movies, it does this for movies about girls, especially bad girls.