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Phoebe Gloeckner's 2002 book, a blend of traditional and graphic novel, touched nerves at the turn of the millennium and garnered the author some measure of fame. In 2015, the book became a movie, staring the beguiling Bel Powley. Set in the 1970s, the Diary chronicles an aspiring comic-book artist’s stumbling, staggering journey towards adulthood that starts, as she sees it, when she begins an affair with her mother’s boyfriend.


The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures (2002)

A superficial account might fail to stir readers. The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures presents a semi-autobiographical but fictional account of a teenage girl's coming-of-age, told in diary form. The girl's mother leads a rather wild 1970s life; the daughter drifts into more sex and drugs than the average teen gets anywhere near, and only a crisis can shift her life into a more survivable direction. Many such stories have been told, often aimed at younger, reluctant readers or older, prurient ones.

This variation exceeds expectations. Gloeckner, who drew on her actual teenage diaries for inspiration, retains a writer's eye while capturing a teen voice, and she astutely comments on the uncertain adults around her. The author's career as cartoonist and medical illustrator allows her to shift between prose and well-realized graphics. The novel tells some of its story in comic-book form. It also features illustrations, supposedly by the protagonist. The blend of graphic and traditional novel is not new, but rarely has it so suited the subject matter. The author knew several stars of the underground comix when she was a girl, and her real-life inspiration Aline Kominsky plays a small but significant role in her fictional character's story.

Minnie proves a complex adolescent, at times sounding more mature than her mother's friends, and at others flying into childish tantrums and self-destructive acts. We sympathize with her. She's driven by loneliness, confused moral standards, an implausible female ideal, and hormones. She has discovered her sex drive, but receives little sane or balanced advice on what to do about it. She's an attractive and talented girl, but she doesn't feel beautiful, and society has little place for her artistic interests. A female cartoonist? Despite the rise of the type in the 1970s, she sees no obvious place for one. It's little wonder she feels flattered by the adult Monroe, and from there, the attention of other people, friends and abusers, male and female. One of her girlfriends pimps her for drugs.

It's important to note that Minnie regards her relationship with Monroe as sexual awakening, and not abuse. David Bowie's death reignited the debate about his own sexual dalliance with a fifteen-year-old in the same era, when he was a decade younger than Monroe. In present-day America, both Bowie and Monroe would be put on trial. In the novel, Monroe is merely sleazy— and slightly drug-and-booze-addled. Both ultimately recognize how inappropriate their relationship is, yet Minnie only partially regrets becoming involved. And while she doesn't romanticize Monroe once the relationship ends, she certainly doesn't see him as a criminal, nor herself as a victim. This book reminds us that (however important the need to protect children from predators) human feelings can be complex, and standards for behavior vary with time and place. We don't have to approve. We can even judge. But we should not ignore personal and social context.

Diary feeds us everything: longing, drawing, sex, and drugs. The graphics feature everyday moments alongside, frankly, graphic depictions. The book is a work of art, which has won accolades-- Rolling Stone ranks it among the best non-superhero graphic novels-- but one should approach it with caution.


The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

After turning down several proposals for a film adaptation, Gloeckner finally signed off to Marielle Heller, who made it the subject of her first full-length film.

The performances are note-perfect. Kristen Wiig as Charlotte demonstrates credible concern for her daughter, buried under her own, essentially adolescent lifestyle and outlook. The standout performance, as it needed to be, is Bel Powley as Minnie. The wide-eyed Bel is a ringer for the character, at once emotive and disconnected. Although in her early twenties, she passes for fifteen, to a degree that will distress many viewers. The young adults playing her classmates, alas, don't fare quite so well. Fortunately, with the exception of her close friend Kimmie, they receive comparatively little screen time. The director had few options; she either had to cast adults as teens or she had make a film distanced from the novel's raw subject matter. Even so, the film blunts the novel's sharpest edges.

A film adaptation, of course, must shortchange parts of the more complicated source material. We see far less of Minnie's other sexual partners, and they're not developed to the same degree as Monroe. Her friend Kimmie gets some development; Kimmie's occasional adult partner from the novel receives only passing mention. Minnie's one-time surrogate father, Pascal, played thoughtfully by Law & Order's Christopher Meloni, also has his role reduced. After Monroe, the film focuses on Minnie's strained relationship with her mother and, to a lesser degree, her half-sister, Gretel. In editing the original, however, the film version produces a cleaner and perhaps more satisfying, if less truthful, narrative.

The movie captures the feel of 1976 with washed out, old-photo colours and bright, animated effects. Minnie's drawings come to life. They speak to her and dramatize her thoughts. She grows cartoon wings on LSD before crashing back to earth. Diary... also includes more conventional special effect shots to illustrate Minnie's inner life. As in the source, the gritty world opens up into something other in key places. The human mind and body are like that.

Both book and movie deserve praise and an audience for their intelligent presentation of potentially exploitative material. The story reflects its content. The life Minnie leads can be bleak and dangerous, but the conclusion does not lack hope.

Written and directed by Marielle Heller
From the novel by Phoebe Gloeckner

Bel Powley as Minnie
Kristen Wiig as Charlotte
Alexander Skarsgård as Monroe
Abby Wait as Gretel
Madeleine Waters as Kimmie
Margarita Levieva as Tabatha
Christopher Meloni as Pascal
Miranda Bailey as Andrea
Carson D. Mell as Michael Cocaine
John Parsons as Burt
Austin Lyon as Ricky Wasserman
Quinn Nagle as Chuck
Davy Clements as Arnie
Anthony Williams as Frankie
Susannah Schulman as Aline Kominsky
Willie the Cat as Domino the Cat

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