In Which We Have Shed All Of This Dead Weight

Tinted with Pastels

by TAYLOR HINE

Diary of a Teenage Girl
dir. Marielle Heller
102 minutes

I’ve never owned a Polaroid camera. At thirteen or fourteen, I briefly toyed with the idea of buying one and pursuing what I thought would be “authentic” photography until I got an iPhone. I snapped a few photos of standard things — the tops of buildings and trees against clear blue skies, myself posed in mirrors and outdoors — and made them dusky and hazy, with vague lines and muted colors. Naturally, they looked even more amateurish than they already were.

I’d tried to hearken back to a time well before I was born when photos often fell out of thin slits and had to be shaken out vigorously in broad daylight to be fully seen. Photos like that had seemed more original to me than our own digitally clear and sharp ones; they were tangible tokens of living “in the moment,” without the ability to be altered. There were no “filters” — there was only the quality of light.

Luckily, I was able to simply tap “revert to original” and start over.

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The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a film set in mid-1970s San Francisco. Fifteen-year-old Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley), a fledgling cartoonist, tells the story of her first sexual encounter (and her first love), which happens to be with her mother’s 30-something boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård).

Diary, based on a graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, is not only about first love, but about how we capture first love. The first time Minnie has sex, she begins telling her story into a tape recorder. Throughout the film, her voiceover musings are accompanied by her own illustrations: pink hearts float to the surface of her bathtub and pop like bubbles; flowers bloom and birds circle around Monroe’s face in her mind. Minnie hangs her first post-coital Polaroid on her mirror to remind herself of her newly acquired adulthood, and their whirlwind romance of them versus the evil monster — her largely absent, coke-addled mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig).

Ascribing labels to the people in Minnie’s life would detract from the meaning of the film. The thrills aren’t supposed to come from Monroe being a “predator” or Charlotte being an “addict,” because they aren’t just stereotypes. Minnie and her friend Kimmie (Madeleine Waters) could be your typical teenage girls, but not every pair of girlfriends is able to say they were in a threesome together. They are only typical in their naïvete, largely unaware (or ignorant) of the existence of emotional consequences.

When we look back on fond memories of someone we used to love, they often, if not always, aren’t exacting. They’re softened, sometimes tinted with pastels — even the arguments and the despair are coated in sunlight or the brightness of rain-soaked things. Diary is a veritable storybook; at one point, Minnie’s favorite comic book writer, Aline Kominsky (an underground comic artist of the era), takes shape in a diner booth, all shaky lines and bright watercolors, contentedly sketching her next project alone, smiling. This phantom stands out against the muted haziness of Minnie’s existence as her only mentor–through letters, too, Aline encourages Minnie to keep practicing her art.

Had Diary been told in retrospect, it would have held a kind of beauty that would have been less immediate and almost ineffective. Part of what captivates us about first love is how out of focus and rose-colored it looks in the moment, not just in memory. Watching Diary was way more fun than the idea of rereading my own high school diaries. Fortunately for me, I shredded the pages of those diaries and had them recycled to give them a practical use – they were dead weight, recollections of boys and other letdowns, and of no use to me as the writer I wanted to become.

The most significant details, though, have never left me, and they’re the details that make my story especially mine. This is less of a surprise and more of a blessing. Minnie’s recordings are what get her in trouble in the end, and the miracle is that that doesn’t stop her. Instead she channels her story through her art and shares it with whoever might want a part of it — even Monroe, who happens to be jogging by as she peddles miniature sketches on the beach.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is exactly what its name suggests, only better. It’s a brutally honest — and in no way contrived — presentation of first love, and all of the splendor and self-doubt that accompany it. It’s about speaking up for yourself, even if no one, not even your mother or your best friend, wants to hear what you have to say.

Taylor Hine is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Asheville. She tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing for This Recording here.

“Wolves” – Kanye West (mp3)

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