Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Mistress America

           Girls Just Wanna Have … Are You Sure This is Really Fun?
                                               Review by Ken Burke
                  The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller)
A 15-year-old in 1976 San Francisco suddenly finds her boring, constricted life changed when she starts having sex; however, her joy at bodily pleasure has a major complication in that her most regular partner is also her divorced mother’s boyfriend so what begins as a revelation with added animation enhancements soon becomes much more traumatic.
                                  Mistress America (Noah Baumbach)
Tracy’s just started college in NYC but is having a hard time making friends so she takes her mother’s advice to connect with the slightly older woman soon to be her step-sister when their parents marry; Brooke proves to be very lively if guilty of living on the edge a bit too much so Tracy attempts to help her get needed financing from her rich former boyfriend.
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.

What Happens: It’s often said about the arts that what makes an individual work notable (if not necessarily “great”) is its capacity to inspire active discussion in reviews and/or direct conversation, even when that talk becomes oppositional between those who support or reject the work in question.  (This phenomenon is related to the “Any publicity is good publicity” dictum from the P.R. and advertising departments of various media-product-corporations, as drawing attention to the book, movie, TV show, CD, etc. is a means of keeping the product in the public’s consciousness—especially necessary in the crowded-media-markets we endure today—but what I’m discussing here is more about value judgments and social impact rather than mere awareness.)  This concept was put into practice for me last weekend when my wife, Nina, and I saw The Diary of a Teenage Girl with our usual group of close friends out for a regular Friday-night-cinematic-adventure, with the post-screening-discussion over drinks taking a surprising turn (for Nina and me because we both liked the film) as 2 of our companions were completely disinterested—if not outright troubled—by what they saw while another one was able to “appreciate” it, “in the deepest sense of ‘appreciation’ (which is to say that, to me, it is not a question of ‘liking’ or ‘disliking’ it).  (This quote and some others further below taken from emails to me later over the weekend as the conversation continued.)  With that as an opening premise, and much more on this topic to be addressed in the next section of this posting, I’ll just say here that The Diary … makes for an interesting pairing with Mistress America (which I saw with another friend the next day, resulting in much more placid agreement) because they both involve traumatic situations for young women (teens of 15 and 18 in The Diary … and Mistress … respectively, along with a young-adult-hesitantly-approaching-30 also in the latter film), so let’s set the scene here with the contents of these 2 intriguing coming-of-age-stories (Mistress …’s Brooke [Greta Gerwig] is still in that process herself, despite her older, often-confident-assumptions that she’s in command of any environments she chooses to invade).

 While director Heller of The Diary of a Teenage Girl is also the screenwriter, she adapted her story from a 2002 graphic novel of the same name by Phoebe Gloeckner (with some disputes between Gloeckner and others as to how autobiographical the depicted events might be; whatever the case on that issue, Heller’s been fascinated by the material for quite awhile, first adapting the print version to the Off-Broadway-stage in 2010, with the lead role of teenage Millie Goetze played by Heller herself).  In this 1976 San Francisco setting there’s none of the charm of another recent conceptually-similar-tale, Inside Out (Pete Doctor, Renaldo Del Carmen; review in our July 2, 2015 posting) where a (younger, in that case) contemporary girl also explores the environment of Tony Bennett’s “City by the Bay” (Ready for one of my inappropriate sideways diversions?  If so, here's Tony, from his concert with Lady Gaga at the Concord CA Pavilion on May 28 2015 which Nina and I had the pleasure of attending [the spotlight on him’s harsh, though, so here’s another version in better exposure; location and date unknown])Inside Out’s Riley is lonely for her former Minnesota home, wishes that her Dad spent more time with her than at his new job, and presents most of her difficulties as inner-conflicts between her various emotions attempting to take command of her mind.  Conversely, in The Diary …, while we get a lot of voiceover reflections from self-critical Minnie (Bel Powley) about the conflicts brought on by her emerging-raging-hormones (with illustrations of her moods and fantasy-tinged-perceptions frequently popping up within the photographic space she occupies on screen, either as enhancements to what she’s feeling—as with a great shot where her exuberance has literally given her wings—or as projections of what she’d like to add to her isolated-space-environments—as with her imaginary dialogues with actual underground cartoonist Aline Kominsky [shown only in animations]), most of what we see is very much from the external world, presented in graphic fashion (just short of an NC-17 rating, although Pawley’s now 23 [21 when the film was shot] so calm your fears about any actual Lolita-style-child abuse/pornography on the set), as Minnie begins her ecstatic commentary by saying “I had sex today.  Holy shit!”—with the real shit involving her partner, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), who’s not only 35 but also’s the boyfriend of Minnie’s strung-out-mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig).

 It’s not much of a shock that Minnie’s ready to shed her virginity—along with any remaining illusions about the happy world of childhood—given Mom’s horrible approach to parenting where Monroe just lounges around their apartment at will in various stages of undress (surprisingly, he’s got his own place [with a nice view of one of the big bridges; it could have been the Golden Gate or maybe the newly-named Willie Brown span of the Bay Bridge that reaches out to my East Bay territory, hard to be sure from a quick glance], but that’s needed latter for his frequent encounters of the most obvious kind with Minnie), drug-consumption-parties with Charlotte and her friends seem to be regular events (with Minnie and her friend Kimmie [Madeleine Waters] joining in on some coke-snorting later in the film), and Minnie having nothing to learn from Mom’s nihilism or ex-stepdad Pascal MacCorkill’s (Christopher Meloni) haughty sense of superiority to Mom’s non-role-modeling-skills (I had to sort of piece together later that at a young age Charlotte became pregnant with Minnie as the result of an involvement with someone who doesn’t factor in at all here, then married Pascal and divorced him; he later moved to NYC, offering Minnie the chance to live with him which she rejects.  However, he does seem to be younger sister Gretel's [Abigail Wait] father as he keeps insisting that she call him "Dad" instead of "Pascal," as Minnie's determined to do.) which have left Minnie ready to blossom into a full-blown-social-rebel, disdainful of most everything she sees around her (except for the underground comix of graphic artists such as Kominsky), especially still-playing-by-society’s-rules-Gretel.  Minnie’s affair with Monroe begins with his subtle breast-play one night on the family couch, followed by her slightly-later-challenge for him to round the bases with her which he eagerly accepts (on a night when Mom’s too busy for either one of them so she suggests Monroe entertain Minnie, which he does—at a bar; still, he’s not presented as either a repulsive pedophile nor a charming lothario, just a guy in the right place at the right time—for him—to take advantage of opportunities that literally land in his lap, unacceptable as they should be—but aren’t in his dim-witted-case, although later he does try to end the relationship with Minnie but succumbs to her screaming-insistence), with no hesitation about on-call-further-follow-ups.  

 Ecstasy over her newly-found-“adulthood” leads to voluminous cassette recordings as her diary (she apparently prefers the spoken to the written word, with her paper diary instead filled with drawings of not-so-attractive-people, in the familiar Kominsky and Robert Crumb styles) and increasingly-inappropriate-celebrations with Kimmie, culminating (maybe I should have said “climaxing”) in a bar (another of this story’s lawless premises—probably [hopefully? I have no idea what SF was like 40 years ago] a bit exaggerated-for-impactful-purposes—is how easy it is for these girls to just stroll into bars and order drinks) in them giving blowjobs in the restroom to a couple of guys as if they were hookers (which Minnie admits later was something they shouldn’t do again, so I guess she does have some limits early on as to where her new lifestyle is leading her).

 Now that she’s a woman of (at least a very small part of) the world, Minnie also gets into some sexual hookups with an interested high-school-classmate, Ricky Wasserman (Austin Lyon), but that has its limits for him because she’s so aggressive and knowledgeable (thanks to Monroe’s uninhibited tutoring) that he’s clearly more scared than satisfied.  Minnie’s happily on the prowl, though (with her new-found-confidence also encouraging her to contact Aline by mail for advice on a cartooning career), until Mom discovers the tapes, which then leads to one of the strangest plot twists I could ever imagine—after trying to figure out on her own for several hours what to do next, Minnie finds Charlotte and Monroe in a bar (where else?) with their proposal that he should marry Minnie as the only way to bring stability to their grotesque situation (Nina thinks they weren’t serious but merely were trying to freak out Minnie—I’m not sure about that, as I could understand Charlotte‘s distress and desire for retribution but not Monroe’s, unless he’s just angry that Minnie provided evidence of their involvement, which could lead to jail time for him [another dose of normal-reality that seems to have little presence in this particular story]; I’m still just stunned that this might even feasibly have seemed to be a “solution” in the minds [?] of these “adults,” even in 1976 post-Summer-of-Love SF).  Minnie’s response is to race off to join another outcast friend of hers, Tabatha (Margarita Levieva), seemingly ready to go for girl-on-girl-action with her, at least until she wants Minnie to join in a threesome with a guy she needs cash from which propels Minnie back onto the streets again.  Finally, after a couple of days, she returns home, to be welcomed back by Charlotte and Gretel, with Mom seemingly now more in league with Minnie’s needs as we close on them in a club together (“If anyone asks, we’re sisters”), mother and daughter united in the quest for substance-fueled-escape and more appropriate (?) men (on a more-uplifting-note, when she comes home Minnie finds a response from Aline encouraging her to be true to herself and her art; later when selling that art on Ocean Beach—with the famous Cliff House just out of full view of the shotMonroe happens upon her, with little to say as it’s clear their relationship is completely over).

 In Mistress America there’s a somewhat-similar-presentation of young souls trying to find solace in an uncaring world, along with intra-familial-conflicts, although the “family” in this case hasn’t come to be yet, as new-college-freshman Tracy (Lola Karce) has begun her post-high-school-life at Manhattan’s Barnard College (all-women, just like my long-time-employer, Oakland’s Mills College, but with a good number of men in her classes who come from nearby Columbia—Mills has men also, but only as grad students so their only overlap of the genders for undergrad classes comes from programs that mix both levels of students—mostly English, Music, and Pre-Med), where she’s not meeting new friends nor having any success being accepted into the Mobius literary society, although she’s starting to get closer to a fellow-rejectee, Tony (Matthew Shear), until he suddenly begins a relationship with hair-trigger-jealous Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones).  In an attempt to help her lonely daughter, Tracy’s mother suggests that she call her soon-to-be-stepsister, Brooke, who also lives in the city so that they can meet before the families gather at Thanksgiving to plan the upcoming-family-merge.  Tracy meets Brooke at Times Square where she (a bit older, never attended college) has a small apartment (we later find out she shouldn’t be in it because the area’s zoned commercial); their rapport is instant, leading Tracy to spend a lot of time with her almost-sister, hanging out at the apartment rather than on campus, becoming enamored with Brooke’s plan to open Mom’s, a restaurant/community center (sort of like the Chilean-refugee-inspired La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley CA but without the sociopolitical aspects), a plan on the verge of collapse unless Brooke can raise $75,000 for some immediate payments on the property, with her unbridled enthusiasm having already led her as far as she can go with anonymous investors.

 One source of cash who’s not anonymous at all is former boyfriend, Dylan (Michael Chernus), a guy with abundant family money who’s now living in a huge, lavish CT home with Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), whom Brooke says stole Dylan away from her, along with her cats, and her T-shirt idea that Mamie-Claire then sold to J. Crew for a fabulous sum so that she’s wealthy as well.  In that Tony’s the only one among the NY foursome with a car, he’s recruited to drive Brooke and Tracy (along with Nicolette, who can hardly let Tony out of her sight for a minute without assuming that he’s cheating on her, despite never any evidence to support her concerns) to the countryside to convince Dylan to be part of the support group for Mom’s.  At this point, Mistress America veers off into pure wacky screwball comedy (given that context, I can’t help but wonder if Tracy’s name comes from Spencer Tracy, sometimes cast in these stories, such as Woman of the Year [George Stevens, 1942] with screwball queen Katharine Hepburn, as I’m sure that savvy-scriptwriters such as Baumbach and Gerwig would be aware of this) as idiocy prevails among this fragmented group (joined by Karen [Cindy Cheung], a member of what appears to be a book-club-for-pregnant-women organized by Mamie-Claire [the only one of the group not well on the way to delivery, apparently not pregnant at all] and an initially-hostile-neighbor, Harold [Dean Wareham], who soon settles in for the afternoon as well).  What begins as Brooke’s pitch for restaurant financing—in which she displays a clumsy approach that would convince no one, that is until she’s suddenly joined by enthusiastic, much-more-effective Tracy—that Dylan‘s ready to accept even over Mamie-Claire‘s objections, turns into a group-evisceration of Tracy because Nicolette’s come across a copy of Tracy’s short story, “Mistress America” (a title taken from one of Brooke’s other ideas, about an office-worker-by-day, superhero-by-night protagonist), a slightly fictionalized account of Brooke (now called Madison) and her restaurant quest that acknowledges the utter futility of the enterprise.  In revenge for Tracy trying to put the moves on Tony (unlike Monroe, he resists), Nicolette reveals the writing which leads to a group reading, followed by uniform attacks on Tracy (made even worse with the revelation that Brooke got a call from her Dad that the wedding’s off so even the quasi-sisterly-bond is now broken).

 Back on campus, Tracy submits the story to Mobius anyway, gets accepted to the group, then becomes quickly disenchanted with their snobby attitudes so she throws her new status-symbol—the Mobius briefcase—into some nearby water, then sets off to make amends with Brooke.  Tracy has to enter Brooke’s barricaded apartment (the landlord finally caught up with her) through a neighbor’s fire escape, they connect again (even though Brooke, after having paid her debts with money finally forked over by Mamie-Claire for the T-shirt-design-theft, is on her way to LA where she says that her lack of knowledge of literature will be no hindrance and she might even go to college), followed by Thanksgiving dinner in a diner (Tracy’s mother needed an escape from her misery so she took advantage of friends’ offer to join them on a Caribbean vacation), not the big event originally planned for that day but one that now feels more satisfying for the almost-sisters.  While they weren’t dealing with any of the sexual explorations and resulting crises from those encounters that had plagued Minnie back in her day on the other side of the continent, Tracy and Brooke each had to navigate their own challenges of entering adulthood (or continuing to re-enter, in Brooke’s case, something that Minnie’s mother, not that much older than Brooke, still hadn’t been able to negotiate the last time we saw her), forcing them to also question what really matters to them, how to find closure (or at least a semblance of it) in difficult situations, and how to find some direction “home” in situations where family ties prove to be marginally-helpful at best in trying to understand their internally-confused-personas (Tracy makes a strong stab at focusing on her own needs rather than turning to others for validation by applying to start her own lit club in the spring semester, hoping to begin the recruitment with Tony and Nicolette).  At least we know that when the “sisters” depart that Brooke has truly made an impact on Tracy, as the younger “sibling” tells us in VO (just as she read to us from that Brooke-based-short-story several times throughout the film) that other people are simply “matches to [Brooke’s] bonfire,” a poetic compliment of the highest order in my view.

So What? As I noted at the beginning of the review, my regular cinema-viewing-group had some starkly-opposed-responses to the presentation of actions and consequences (or absence of such) in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, with the strongest rejection coming from Michaele O’Leary-Reiff (who’s allowed me to share her opinions and has solid credentials to back up her position, being both a Registered Nurse and an Individual and Family Counselor with specialties in health and wellness, acute and chronic illness, grief and loss).  Her take on the film is as follows:

 “It certainly stimulated some strong reactions, which is good, and led me to explore more why I absolutely did not find any redeeming quality in the film.  Unfortunately, it is not an uncommon story in our world, given the number of lost, abused and mentally ill youth and their narcissistic, absent parents, but when you attempt to show the darker side of life, there needs to be some balance, which I found lacking in this film.  It was a serious story that was not taken seriously.  

I realized later that I think I go to movies mostly to learn something or be entertained, and in watching this film neither was the case.  I also like to be challenged and intrigued by film, and again, maybe a little challenged by the level of disturbance and annoyance I felt, but not in a way that brought me to feeling any redemptive value or resolution in the film's intention or lack of.  

I get it that it is a story told from the point of view of a seriously neglected, misguided and troubled teenager, left to fend for herself, with many typical self-loathing as well as normal feelings of adolescence (i.e. body image, not being loved, curious about sex), and I know it was portrayed as a story without judgment.   I guess what was disturbing for me was the lack of essence in any of the characters, a pitiful, creepy, loser guy (Monroe) made to seem cute and even innocent in some ways, a self-absorbed mother who should have been sent to the learn-how-to-parent farm for life and a useless stepfather whose role in the film did nothing but further exaggerate the overall dysfunctional milieu.  Not even a good friend with some level of discernment to share.

 Yes, Minnie was portrayed as ‘happy and liberated’ when she first had sex, discovered her sensuality and easily seduced Monroe (an obviously satisfying means of revenge towards her mother), but as the film progressed, she was not happy as she descended into more insecurity, high-risk, self-destructive behaviors (drugs, alcohol rape fantasies, thrill seeking).   I think with the backdrop of the 70's, a time of demands for sexual and reproductive freedom, gender equality and in my view a healthy sexual revolution, this film showed it only as sexual disintegration into more high-risk behaviors and experimentation, which was certainly true for many who did go to extremes and paid a huge price for their behaviors.  However, the fact that there was no consequence in a laissez-faire environment was disturbing to me, and I am not exactly sure how to interpret that, except to say that it left the impression (especially for younger, more vulnerable viewers) that this was an acceptable means to self-awareness, being loved and feeling valued. 

Finally, regarding the end where everyone seems to be suddenly healed and rescued from themselves was hugely disappointing.  It's not that I think the story, apparently based on a real situation, was not true in its darkness, but there was not one sympathetic character (well, maybe the animated Crumb [like] cartoonist [Aline], which I will give you was a welcome bit of creative relief).  The film lacked karma—not meaning good or bad—but as in there are consequences to all our actions, and karma is the teacher.  There was no teacher.  [bracket clarifications mine, KB]
To me, a film with so many sordid characters and unleashed behaviors, rife with pathos, deserved more than a litany of manipulative sexual escapades and toxic relationships with a patronizing token few moments of a ‘happy ending, everything's all right now.’”

 Other comments that emerged that night and later included concerns that none of the characters were likable nor sympathetic so it was hard to care what happened to them and that The Diary … “challenges its viewers by getting into taboos territory and does so in a creative, out-of-the-ordinary way. Perhaps the most challenging aspect (especially for audiences in our particular society) is the refusal to include any value judgments—which is not uncommon in films from other cultures.”  Nina said that she could easily recognize the Alice in Wonderland-like-qualities of this film, the subterranean-desires Minnie had about breaking out of strictures previously defined for her (relating to Nina's own teenage experiences with rule-making-nuns in her Catholic-school-upbringing, a rule-enforcing-mother at home, fueling a desire to rebel—even if sex wasn’t part of that rebellion for her during those years).  Nina greatly liked the film, as she could relate to the thrills that Minnie experienced by experimenting with aspects of life previously closed to her, as well as the need to find some direction for herself given the lack of encouragement toward that in her home life (with the acknowledgement that as the middle-child of 7 her parents were likely overwhelmed with just keeping up with all of their brood’s activities each day, especially with her mother usually forced into the role of family disciplinarian while her father tried to stay on an even keel with everyone).  As for me, I can agree with Michaele in having no attraction for any of these characters, but that didn’t put me off from the film.  If anything, it helped me appreciate what the filmmakers were exploring with situations that are bereft of engaging people or desirable outcomes.  That’s not an easy set-up to work with, especially when you want to encourage your audience to yell “No! No! No! Don’t do that!” at the screen (in a more lift-up-the-species-perspective than simply trying to save a clueless heroine’s life in a genre-grinding-horror-movie), fearful of or disgusted by the events of your art.  For me, the lack of a “teacher” here is the point, that people such as Charlotte and Pascal barely have reason to marry, let alone produce children if they’re to be raised with such dismally-ill-prepared attitudes and abilities to give understanding and guidance to their offspring.

 I don’t mean to imply that The Diary of a Teenage Girl is some subtle propaganda piece from Planned Parenthood (God knows, they’ve suffered enough unjustified abuse from right-wingers trying to fabricate excuses to shut them down lately) under the guise of a Hollywood movie advocating well-thought-out-birth-control-considerations long before irresponsible decisions become manifest in family photo albums, but I do think that this film is not about “a ‘happy ending, everything’s all right now,” but instead is an expose of the squalid results of poorly-chosen-coupling, careless childbearing, irresponsible parenting, dereliction of adult responsibility, and dreamily-romantic-assumptions of media-saturated kids as to what sex, love, adulthood, and reasonable choices are all about.  I noted to Michaele local SF-dominant-voice-film-critic Mick LaSalle's review in the San Francisco Chronicle (August 14, 2015, Section E, pp. 1, 6 in print; the Web version also contains a 5:38 video of LaSalle talking at further length about the film)—a guy we agree can be both insightful and pompous (No, I really don’t think I’ll ever be voted into the SF Film Critics Circle; why do you ask?)—who says of Minnie, “she’s an active participant in her own victimhood, and everything she does makes her situation worse.  In her we see the makings of a confident, assertive adult—or of someone who’ll end up outlined in chalk by 1977,” a statement that I agree with.  (As well as somewhat accepting his close: “Yet, ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’ has one drawback that should not be denied: It is not a pleasure to sit through, not even remotely, not even by some stretched definition of the word ‘pleasure.’  It’s work, but it’s ultimately rewarding work.  It tackles some truths that other movies wouldn’t touch, not even with a stick and thick gloves.”  I, however, didn’t find it so much “work,” possibly because I see this as a sad warning tale, not one that even implies I should celebrate it.)  Michaele also agrees with Mick on how Minnie must make life-affirming-decisions soon but doesn’t “think that the film did much to promote that.”  

 In rounding out these viewpoints, I’ll also take issue (fully realizing the responses I may be creating for myself by doing do) with LaSalle’s statement that the presented sex is “utterly joyless, with neither pleasure nor appeal” so as to not make it “erotic and titillating”; Minnie may not have any sense of the love to be shared by 2 people with its culmination in a sex act, but I wouldn’t say that she’s not displaying pleasure with most of her various hook-ups, whomever they may be.

 So, is The Diary of a Teenage Girl a worthwhile experience, “refreshing … in its moral complexity” (Mick) or is it lacking “any redemptive value or resolution” (Michaele)?  For me, it was a pleasure to watch, not an unexpected one either, because this time the trailer did a fairly honest job of presenting what was to come in the actual film, at least in the realm of Minnie’s joy at her move into assumed-adulthood along with the various animated expressions of that liberation shown in their fanciful manner, just as unreal as the self-image that she's deluding herself into believing; the harsher aspects of her sexual emergence aren’t part of the trailer, though, so I can see where viewers might get tricked into thinking that The Diary … is more whimsical than it actually is, thereby leading to a feeling of disappointment—or even disgust—with what they’re actually given on screen (although, perverse as their actions may be, it’s truly hilarious when Charlotte cokes herself up so that she’ll have the energy to clean their apartment, just as Minnie has no qualms about recording thoughts about her sex life while riding on a city bus).  Minnie may have started to learn what Charlotte is telling her about the power she has over men with the appeal and promise of her body (even if undelivered by other girls of that age, just as enticing but more cautious/ manipulating/scared than she is), as Mom dreamily reminisces about her own allure in her pre-parenthood days, but I never saw Minnie as being at all mature about this new-found-world of pleasure, especially in scenes with Monroe where she can switch from being a nakedly-confident (both literally and metaphorically)-ingénue one minute and a pouting, emotional child the next.  As noted above, I do think that Minnie shows intense pleasure in her sexual activities (even reveling in her dominance over boys her own age) until it all begins to get more complicated, more unpredictable, more physical than fanciful as she sees the dark paths her compulsion may take.

 La Salle calls Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) “cold” because there are hardly any warm or approachable characters in it, just as I could say the same about another cinematic powerhouse, Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966).  I’m not saying that The Diary of a Teenage Girl is of the caliber of those 5-star-masterpieces, but it is, in my opinion, an intriguing look at how complex seemingly-simple carnal pleasures can become, how the “joy” of substance-indulgence can blind a parent to the responsibilities that they owe to their children, and how difficult it can be to find a meaningful life when the most insightful lessons you find for guidance come from the intended-exaggerations of graphic novels.  There’s a lot that’s kept conveniently-fictionalized here—especially the complete lack of moral and legal repercussions for Monroe as he so willingly gives into to this emerging-adolescent’s sexual desires—but that artistic disjunction from reality is what this film needs in order to get its sad, complex messages across (with my understanding that for some viewers those messages are muddled at best, not even conveyed at worst, although I have enjoyed my local-group's-dialogue—and highly respect Michaele’s thoughtful rejection of this film despite her conflict with my opinion—in working through the experience of this challenging celluloid-graphic-novel come to life).

 As the narrative eventually winds down in Mistress America, we get the sense that Tracy and Brooke have enjoyed the ultimate results of their confrontations as well, with Tracy, like Minnie, also having to grow up quickly in an environment where she has no role models (her mother’s a lot more caring than is Charlotte Goetze, but this mom’s got her own life to manage at a time when Tracy needs to find a useful path for herself, especially in a complicated environment like NYC where she could easily be led astray by any number of lovers, muggers, and thieves [oh, wait, that’s Boston—from The Standells’ “Dirty Water,” a 1966 hit—but those terms and their allied considerations could easily be applied to Tracy’s new home as well so you might as well take another sideways distraction and listen to it if you like, as long as you’re not a New Yorker or Bostonian who can’t abide the idea that anything about the one city could stand in for the other; even if so, you shouldn’t get too upset because the musicians were from CA anyway]).  Brooke definitely realizes as she approaches 30 that she can no longer get by on just self-assurance, autodidact learning, and interesting ideas that she can’t see to fruition (she also is coming to know that at times her sunny disposition, her ongoing celebration of life—where she’s a much of a bar-mentor to Tracy as Charlotte’s became for Minnie—and her creative thinking aren’t always enough to counter the irrational wickedness of someone like Mamie-Claire, who admits to Tracy that she did steal the T-shirt idea from Brooke just because she doesn’t like her, a situation exacerbated by Brooke’s initial stalking of Dylan and Mamie-Claire in retaliation for the loss of the earlier relationship).  For me, the insights aren’t as fully intriguing in Mistress America as in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, given that anyone with the ability to get into college then stay there for the education to be offered soon has to find that their more-cloistered-teenage-worldview (even if they're in the reigning campus cliques) needs to be rethought, probably largely put aside as more-encompassing-understandings emerge, just as anyone approaching 30 with still no clear foundation to build on surely is aware of such limitations even if it takes some dramatic event to push forward an emergence from hanging-on-too-long-to-adolescence into a life of more-responsible-future-plans.

 Still, there’s enough marvelously-crazy-comedy in the Connecticut section of Mistress … to keep a viewer interested, happy, and ready for whatever else comes next in the lives of these oddballs (including when pregnant Karen’s going to realize that she shouldn’t be drinking so much wine while partaking in the mounting absurdity of her neighbors’ lives, waiting for her extremely-late-husband to show up); both of these films have value for my level of interest in what they have to offer but the ratings don't quite match because their strengths and attractions ultimately become very different.

Bottom Line Final Comments: I’ll begin this segment of the review with The Diary of a Teenage Girl director/ screenwriter Heller speaking to her own intentions (from the film’s press kit)“I do think we have to retrain our minds a little bit as audience members— being OK in seeing these stories about girls instead of just boys. As girls, we have been trained for a long time to relate to a male protagonist, to feel their stories and to be invested in them. And there’s no reason why we can’t invest in female characters the same way. Or why boys can’t watch this movie and think, 'Oh I relate to Minnie, even though she’s a girl.' That’s OK. I had to read 
Catcher in the Rye and relate to Holden Caulfield. When I read Phoebe’s book I thought this is how boys must feel when reading Catcher in the Rye. So, why can’t boys watch this movie and relate to Minnie? It’s a two-way street. Sexuality is something we’re both experiencing and so if one side’s perspective is reflected, the other side should be reflected too.”   Of course, when that “other side” is sex play where Minnie invites Kimmie to join her and Monroe (which she’s quite willing to do) or when Charlotte, remembering her own sexual allure (“When I was your age, I was quite a piece.”)—resulting in Minnie at far too early an age for her mother—has no better sense than to spend some of the $1,000 that Minnie and Gretel convince Pascal to send (after Mom loses her library job) to finance a drug party for her friends (along with Minnie and Kimmie), you can see where this double-dollop of debauchery might leave some of Heller’s audience aghast at what happens when the “girls” (including Charlotte, in attitude if not age) put on the catcher’s mitt.  For me, though, this film isn’t celebrating debauchery or claiming that Minnie’s better off for having plunged into her many sexual escapades; instead, I see it as a precautionary tale, warning sex-curious-teens to think clearly about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it (along with how, as I don’t recall pregnancy protection in any of Minnie’s encounters), especially if they’re getting next-to-nothing as guidance from their elders (as Minnie says, in final VO: “This is for all the girls, when they have grown.”)

 However, I admit that the R rating (for nudity—including a very thoughtful scene where Minnie sizes herself up in the mirror—simulated sex, drugs, etc., which probably had the Ratings Board in full agreement before they were even 20 minutes into the screening; in Britain it got our equivalent of an NC-17 so it takes semi-full-adult-status—in that U.S. older teens still can’t drink legally until age 21 even though they can see fully-mature-movies—for a UK patron to get in the theater at all) will likely restrict the most-appropriate-target-audience because I doubt that too many parents will see this film with their young teenagers, but at least maybe it’ll inspire some useful family talk after the fact.

 Sadly enough, the R-rating-gate also somewhat restricts the audience for Mistress America, this time based merely on language and some sexual references (as if teenagers’ lives aren’t already filled with such, but, then, our U.S. film ratings system rarely operates with what Mick LaSalle calls “moral complexity”), so once again a segment of a conceptually-appropriate-audience is kept at bay from a film that may be quite well-written-comedy (mostly) for a sexagenarian such as myself who appreciates the quirky situations and fluid dialogue but is watching from afar a story that could serve as a useful exploration of the pitfalls of un- or poorly-reflected-upon-life-after-high-school, but at least they’d be able to see it in their college-freshman or just-post-HS lives so that the film’s considerations about how easy it is to lose yourself in loneliness-driven-exploits and half-baked-life-schemes can be experienced by those who’d most directly benefit from these messages, purposely-exaggerated as they may be in structure and delivery here.  While it doesn’t raise as many quality-of-life-issues as does The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Mistress America does do a fine job of forcing consideration about how to live a self-directed-life rather than one constantly in response to someone else’s lead, how to understand when your own lead has begun to run aground, and how little you can often put your trust in someone you don’t know that well as personal paranoia and ambition often overtake more reasonable interpersonal interactions, possibly leaving you at the mercy of unknown assailants (just ego-killers, fortunately, not deranged homocidalists) for reasons that may not be known nor shared by you.

 In an effort to offer sincere praise when it’s due, I’ll turn the final spotlight on Mick LaSalle again, calling your attention to a lengthy response to a letter in his Ask Mick LaSalle column in the Sunday SF Chronicle Datebook section of August 23-29, 2015, specifically p. 21 
(also available here, although I think you have to be a print or electronic subscriber like me to get the full text) where a reader states “that I find myself wishing I was born 30 or 40 years earlier in order to inhabit the same world as the [young] characters” of a favorite film (I’ve often had this thought about at least briefly existing in the 1930s environment of Chinatown despite the rampant racism, sexism, and other social restrictions that permeated that period; the entire aura of that film’s milieu beckons to me nevertheless).  LaSalle responds:  “In the end—unless there’s a war or some terrible privation—every era is a great era in which to be young.  The challenge of youth is to recognize the splendor that’s in front of you … Thirty years from now, you’re going to see a movie that captures the glory of 2015, and you’ll wish you were there … You’re in a better movie right now, and it’s happening on all sides of you.  Don’t miss it.”  This is the advice that Minnie, Tracy, and Brooke needed to internalize; we have good reason to hope that the latter 2 almost-sisters are awakening to that invaluable insight, we can only hope that it happens for Minnie (and, maybe someday, her mother) as well.

 Now, to bring this ramble to a close here are my official Musical Metaphors for these films (the previous songs far above were just to break up the flow of my verbosity with some pleasant—again, depending on how you feel about Boston—music).  For The Diary of a Teenage Girl I think we can safely say that Minnie would agree with the personal-independence-attitudes of The Animals’ “It’s My Life” (from the 1966 album, The Best of the Animals) at and may well have heard it on his mother’s stereo as it had been around on the radio (at least as an “oldie”) since she was 5, along with the sense that Mom was trying desperately to hold on the aura and residual elements of her own youth, so I can see this defiant song as speaking to both of the Goetze “girls” (maybe someday to Gretel as well, but we’ve seen little of that spark of obedience-defiance from her so far).  One difference, though—a deciding factor in choosing this specific video clip—is the casual sexism of this Hullaballoo TV broadcast where there are women’s heads on the wall behind the band, seemingly as trophies for the male musicians (with most of the women following along with the concept, giving us frowning faces as if they were in league with today’s hunting-trophy-scandal, Cecil the Lion, late of Zimbabwe, although one of them is bopping along in time with the music so I guess she didn’t mind being the one that the singer tells “some day I’ll treat you real fine”).  However, if you’d like a more updated performance of Eric Burton & The Animals delivering this song of self-acknowledgement, here’s a version at RELO9So from the annual San Javier (Spain) International Jazz Festival on July 22, 2011.

 For Mistress America I think that an appropriate Musical Metaphor would be Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” (from the 1977 Rumours album), with the original music video (seemingly a live performance shot in a studio) at https://www. aiTKIXqs, given the individual directions that Tracy and Brooke eventually choose for themselves (but if you’d like an updated performance from these folks as well, here’s one at https://www. SA recorded at the Boston Garden on October 10, 2014; it’s not the best audio quality—OK, the video’s a bit kinetic as well, although it matches the great energy of the song—but it’s at least a record of roughly how they sound now with all of the most-well-known-members of the group back together for the first time in years and Lindsey Buckingham absolutely “electric” on guitar, plus this is from the same tour that Nina and I saw in San Jose, CA in December 2014 so I can testify to the impact of their delivery).  Of course, if my awareness of pop music spanned the decades better after roughly the 1970s then 
I’m sure I’d be better aware of women singing their own driving, upbeat songs about choosing personal freedom, but I’m not, so unless someone has some suggestions for alternatives for now just remember that these offerings are just final metaphors enhanced with music for the films under review, even though in this case they’re being sung mostly by men instead of what would be more-appropriate-women if I had more tunes in my head to pick from.  (With a further potential complaint about my choices being that even though Christie McVie and Stevie Nicks add harmonies to Buckingham’s song the content is about his breakup with Nicks, with some lyrics that she doesn’t particularly appreciate [especially about her "shacking up"] even though she’s willing to give a fine effort on her vocal delivery anyway, a more generous response than I’d ever expect Monroe to get from Minnie or Mamie-Claire to get from Brooke, but hopefully all of us grow into better options for forgiveness as we age, so maybe they can all end on a note of mutual acceptance just as our little “film society” did last weekend despite any differences we encountered with what was projected that night.)
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Here’s more information about The Diary of a Teenage Girl: (29:49 interview with director Marielle Heller and actor Bel Powley)

Here’s more information about Mistress America: (12:34 interview by Rolling Stone Peter Travers with director/co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach and actor/co-screenwriter Greta Gerwig)

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. Excellent review of Diary of a Teenage Girl, especially the personal interactions and conflicting opinions. Almost like an early Woody Allen script as the characters leave the theater. I suspect this review would have stood strong or stronger without the second movie's inclusion. Good job!

    Teenage Girl was a little uncomfortable to sit through, but it certainly projects originality and power, which most current offerings severely lack. The film has gone mainstream in Central Texas and maintains high critical reviews. I think many believe accountability must prevail in female sexual matters to be acceptable in life and on screen (with the R rating here and an equivalent NC17 in England), while violence and murder remains entertainment and rarely reflects a conflict to accepted morality (why is that, glorification of war?) and therefore graphical mayhem is perfectly fine for most audiences.

    While most would agree that female adolescents must be protected from themselves through the legal system (although not male equivalents unless the "criminal" is a teacher), I believe the reality is truer to the portrayal in this film. Hormones rage, insecurities seek comfort, people make mistakes, they learn from them and go on with their lives without legal action or long term accountability. Yes, some are damaged, most are not. This is an interesting film which is also a sober reflection of it's time period when the pill fueled female liberation and STDs were all curable.

  2. Hi rj, Thanks for these detailed comments, which enhance the review considerably. Given how long I carried on about The Diary of a Teenage Girl I guess I could have put Mistress America into a separate review but I was intrigued by the idea of combining two stories of young women of various ages dealing with different personal struggles in different time periods, different locations.

    I'm very glad to hear that Diary's gone mainstream in your area because it hasn't around here except in the usual spots of San Francisco and Berkeley (how's that for irony?). I also agree with your analysis of our culture's "protection" of young women (probably older ones as well, such as Wendy Davis, when they get too outspoken), with your understanding of the hypocrisies of these attitudes making an excellent refutation of how male "prerogative" in our society often gets very misdirected.

    One other small item that I forgot to include in the review is that about 10 years after the setting of Diary, before I met my wife, I briefly dated a women in SF who had a teenage daughter. She made it very clear to me that if I ever did anything inappropriate with the girl (not that I ever had any inclination toward such) that there'd be hell to pay so I guess she was speaking from bad experience not unlike at least some aspects of what we see in this film (although I never discussed it further with her, except to make it clear that she had nothing to worry about in that matter). Ken

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