The Diary of a Teenage Girl (theatrical release August 2015) came out on DVD this week. It’s about a 15-year-old girl in 1970s San Francisco who embarks on a sexual affair with her mother’s 35-year-old boyfriend. The movie was written and directed by Marielle Heller who adapted it from Phoebe Gloeckner’s original 2002 book of prose and graphic art about her tumultuous teenage years.
I’ve wanted to see this movie and read the book since I heard a podcast about it on the Diane Rehm show back in the fall. It was clear from the interview that the director’s narrative drive was different from that of the author’s, and I looked forward to comparing them. Even the NPR listenership is not immune from rank voyeurism. After all, they say sex sells. Especially since the movie, at least, was billed as a sexual coming-of-age story, not as an abuse tale.
So…how do they compare?
The movie is about precocious Minnie Goetze living with her mom and little sister in San Francisco as she navigates those trying teenage years. Is she attractive? Will anyone love her? Will her hard-partying, good-time-gal mom pay her any attention? Will she find a path in life?
Step one in seeking these answers is to lose her virginity, and her mother’s super hunky boyfriend, Monroe, is just the guy to help. He and Minnie have a warm relationship—it’s obvious he’s over a lot and they like each other—but it’s devolved into flirting. In the movie, Minnie is a coquette. She teases Monroe before flat-out asking him to have sex with her. He takes her up on the offer, not realizing she’s a virgin. One gets the impression Monroe feels he’s being played by Minnie, not the other way around. Maybe they’re both mental teenagers, but only one of them is legal.
In the film, Minnie keeps an audio journal of her exploits, and as she recounts to her tape recorder and to her bestie Kimmie, she’s enjoying herself. Her time with Monroe is a sexual awakening, and she zealously revels in it. Sure, sleeping with her mother’s boyfriend is about not feeling lonely and the desire to be wanted, but it’s also unabashedly about sex. Minnie likes it, it makes her feel grown up and sexy, and the boys in her class notice the change in her too.
The fact that Monroe is so much older and physically large compared to her diminutive impishness is at once creepy and hot. The movie does not make Monroe out to be a “bad guy,” and although she has dysfunction in her house in the form of an irresponsible mother, Minnie doesn’t seem like a victim. She engages in unsafe, foolish sexual escapades, but in the movie it’s portrayed as high school hijinks. It’s the 70s! It’s San Francisco! Free love, right?
A lot of Minnie’s issues have to do with her competitive relationship with her mother, who’s only about 17 years older than she is. Her mother is beautiful and popular, a bright free spirit (she’s a librarian until she’s fired), and a man magnet. By contrast, Minnie feels ugly, fat, and unlovable. But it’s maternal affection she’s after as much as it’s a man’s. One wonders if starting a relationship with Monroe wasn’t a warped demand for attention from her mother.
Things spiral out of control when Minnie’s mom finds her tapes. Now her suspicions are confirmed. She’s horrified by the revelations because it’s a betrayal…on the part of her daughter. Later she suggests Monroe should marry Minnie, I guess to make an honest woman out of her. The mother herself was married with a baby around Minnie’s age, so she doesn’t see her as a child taken advantage of, but rather as a grown person responsible for her own actions. In short, the mother doesn’t blame Monroe or view him as a child molester.
After the discovery, Minnie runs away from home for a few days, spending her time with a dangerous girl named Tabatha. They go on a drug-fueled bender, and eventually the girl attempts to trade her for drugs. Minnie sobers up long enough to realize what’s happening and escapes on her own. When she arrives back home, her mother is relieved to see her, saying she’s been searching for her since she left. Although her mom doesn’t want to talk about her relationship with Monroe, it’s clear she’s happy to have her back.
By the end of the movie, Minnie is relieved the affair with Monroe is over, and we see her focused on her art as a budding cartoonist and even playing with her little sister again. Minnie admits she always wanted to be like her mom, but unlike her, she realizes she doesn’t need a man to be happy. Ostensibly she has a budding career as a graphic artist, a healthier take on life, and is a little more mature after her misadventures. She’s none the worse for the wear. In fact, she might be better.
A Hollywood Ending
In short, the ending is so 2015. It’s as though the feminist punctuation mark (Minnie saves herself and doesn’t need a man to feel complete) absolves all sins. The affair with Monroe taught her an important life lesson, and it wasn’t too painful since they had a friendly rapport from the start. Plus, Minnie dumped him! She focuses on her own pursuits as an artist and decides the most important person she needs love from is herself. She and her mom are even getting along.
Frankly, I like a happy ending. I don’t think it makes a story trite. I think it makes it palatable. And enjoyable. Considering the subject matter, I think the director made the right choice to keep real danger at bay, play up the coming-of-age element, and show a youthful female owning and enjoying her sex life. The actors were great, especially Alexander Skarsgård, who managed to play Monroe without seeming like a slime ball, which was a feat. Much of the cinematography is bathed in golden hues, putting the subject and city in soft focus.
This is in jarring contrast to the book. There is nothing rosy, tempered, or warm about Phoebe Gloeckner’s novel. It’s a graphic, disturbing, revealing, and sometimes titillating snapshot of a year in a young girl’s life when things went downhill fast. We meet Phoebe when she is still a virgin, and in contrast to the movie, she doesn’t realize the consequences of asking Monroe to “fuck” her. She hopes he’ll do her the favor since he’s a family friend, and she figures no one else will on account of her being ugly and unlovable.
But he does, somewhat to her surprise. Again, and again, and again. Despite her desperation to be loved. Despite the fact he was dating her mom. Despite the fact he was 20 years her senior. Despite everything.
This awakens Minnie’s sensuality, and she makes use of her new-found currency in an increasingly frantic attempt to be noticed and to be loved. Phoebe quickly graduates from sex with Monroe, who she confesses to loving, to doing it with a rich kid in her class, to sex with a boy institutionalized for violence, to “pretending” to be a prostitute with her friend, to being raped. This dovetails with her increased abuse of substances. We catch her sneaking her mother’s wine in the first few pages to going on a days-long meth binge by the end of the story.
Although we see Minnie doing drugs in the movie, with the exception of what happens at the very end with Tabatha, it’s all in good fun. She smokes a little weed with her girlfriend Kimmie, she drinks her mom’s booze, and she drops acid with Monroe (her idea). In the movie, using drugs is portrayed as naughty, not pathological, which is where it goes in the book. Shooting speed and blacking out for days before eventually being raped is not fun and games.
We see her sexual mistakes in the movie too. The girls “pretend” to be prostitutes, but they feel bad about it afterward, as they do after a threesome with Monroe. In the book and in the movie, the girls are collecting experiences, but the ante is upped in the book. Minnie’s sexuality is a fervor. She has sex with strangers, and the danger she ends up in is real. She gets kidnapped one night and narrowly escapes with her life. The reader knows the Minnie in the book is never going to look back on these days with a laugh about what a wild child she once was.
From the outside looking in on what happens in the book, Minnie’s cries for help are clear, but no one hears, including—especially—her neglectful mom. Even when she discovers Minnie’s diary and learns the truth, she never steps in to protect her daughter. Actually, she remains friends with Monroe, and instead directs her anger toward her minor child. The mother does allow Minnie back in the house after she disappears, but she seems more put out about the whole experience than worried for her daughter.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl isn’t uplifting. But it’s not a “trauma” novel either, as the author herself says in the forward. Although the things that happen to her are actually traumatic, Minnie doesn’t necessarily see it that way. In fact, sometimes she feels empowered by them. To her, she does what she wants, even if what she wants to do is skip school, drink alcohol, and have sex with losers. Sometimes she uses art to illustrate her life, so we know she’s not oblivious to what’s happening. Despite her awareness, she simply doesn’t have the tools as a neglected 15-year-old to make healthy choices. It seemed she was on the precipice of becoming something brilliant given her uncommon talent or, frankly, ending up dead.
The book is a work of art, literally. Its style is present and visceral because it’s written as diary entries and as the drawings. Everything that’s happening on each page is happening right now. Each thought Minnie thinks is her immediate reaction to what’s gone on from the eyes of a teenager. What’s best from a young adult’s literature perspective is the immediacy of it. It’s instinctual. The book’s unusual narrative style emphasizes its creativity and rawness.
In the NPR interview, Phoebe Goetze says she looks back and realizes she was being abused. The movie tacitly acknowledges that what goes on is probably wrong, but it’s actively nonjudgmental. Instead, the camera follows Minnie, bathing her in sunlight, giving her agency over every foolish and wise decision. Even the worst things that happen are far more agreeable when she’s choosing to do them. Of course, everything looks better on the silver screen.