Judging someone is easy. Understanding before contempt goes against our instincts.
I think many of us lack the impulse to sympathize with other’s choices before critiquing their lifestyle. Sure, they “may have had it coming for them” but self-righteous judgment doesn’t help with the healing process. There is not enough empathy in the world. Thankfully, The Diary of a Teenage Girl has more than enough to go around.
One must approach Marielle Heller’s directorial debut with one crucial pre-supposition: we need not condone someone’s actions in order to empathize with their situation. Diary Of A Teenage Girl will undoubtedly inspire controversy in conservative circles, but I believe there should be little cause for alarm.
Here’s the issue: Diary of a Teenage Girl is a film about an insecure adolescent who engages in a pedophilic relationship with her mom’s boyfriend who is middle-aged. It’s sick, perverse, and disturbing, yet portions of the film seem to normalize the behavior with a gloss of excitement and delight. As Heller’s Sundance hit begins, Minnie (Bel Powley in a star-making role), a fifteen-year old, is strutting excitedly in slow-motion as she is bathed in light from the warm sun. “I had sex today,” she says. Minnie has an extra skip in her step, but once we find out the details, we have an extra knot in our stomach. The only other film I know that deals with sexual abuse with this kind of unabashed exuberance is Greg Araki’s morally-divisive Mysterious Skin.
After going to the bar with Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), her mom’s boyfriend, a sexual spark is ignited between the two. At first they have casual sex, but Minnie quickly becomes enchanted and obsessed. Monroe is clearly manipulating the girl. He is an evil bastard; there are no doubts about it. But because the film is firmly rooted in Minnie’s naïve perspective, he comes across as charming and charismatic.
The first act, which traces the building sexual-tension between Monroe and Minnie, is crucial to the film’s non-judgmental criticism–a paradoxical balance that is perfectly expressed. Minnie doesn’t feel loved by her mother (Kristen Wiig), who has recently lost her job and now spends her days boozing or snorting cocaine–sometimes both. Minnie is insecure about her body and craves fulfilment and love, an escape from her dysfunctional environment. Monroe is her savior. He makes her feel safe. He makes her feel loved. He sparks her sexual awakening.
It seems odd that a film with so much immorality would be so filled with stylistic whimsy and humorous quirks. Diary of a Teenage Girl veers into dark and edgy territory, yet its light, “Sundancey” touch is undeniable: the musical montages, the cartoon animations that come to life, and the off-beat sense of humor. The first-half is disturbingly glamorous, but as the fantasy withers, so too do the indie romance conventions.
Eventually, there is a heartbreaking volta: Minnie’s slow devolution has made her mother suspicious of her relationship with Monroe. Minnie has become increasingly co-dependent on drugs and sex. Tripping on acid while experiencing sensations of elevating over Monroe’s bed, Minnie crashes down as Monroe rolls on the ground with the concern that someone is watching them. We are frightened at Monroe’s pathetic fear and scared by how far Minnie has come from her innocent naivety.
Diary of a Teenage Girl made me queasy and uncomfortable. Mid-way through I wasn’t sure the graphic depictions of pedophilia were leading to an overarching point, but I still admired the stunning cinematography and set design, which recreates the 1970s with brownish earthy tones, and the incredible supporting cast (Kristen Wiig, Christopher Meloni), whose efficient performances do much with little. It’s only when I realized that the film was slowly developing a stark message–a critique of Minnie’s lifestyle and of some of the effects of 60s culture on 70s kids–that I became deeply invested in Minnie’s arc. The subjective narrative perspective, which at first was disturbing, becomes crucial to us being able to empathize and understand her behavior.
It’s by getting to know Minnie that we recognize the harmful effects of her poor lifestyle choices. Now imagine that The Diary of a Teenage Girl was immediately condescending to Minnie. Would the film’s unsettling tone be earned? Would her path to loving herself feel any deeper than a screenwriter’s self-righteous preaching? We judge Minnie because we feel for her, not because we have some moral high ground. Roger Ebert once said that the cinema is a “machine for empathy.” To extend the metaphor, The Diary of a Teenage Girl feels like a factory that produces empathy like iPhones. The pollution is enough to single-handedly cause climate change: a shift from our societal instinct to judge rather than empathize.