The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

You can sort of understand why this film might be troubling to censors, who in the UK have slapped it with an 18 classification. It’s not that it’s particularly sexually explicit, or nasty or degrading, but that it deals with Minnie, a young woman of 15, having an affair with her mother’s boyfriend. But probably more concerning to censors is that it’s entirely told from her point of view, in which adult characters have no moralising role in Minnie’s development (if anything her mother encourages her to flaunt herself more), and in which Minnie is unapologetic and unashamed about what she wants. But that’s a perspective so little seen in the coming-of-age genre, that it makes me wonder if my dislike for the genre is more its usual focus on gamine young women being objects of adoration seemingly unattainable to oily spotted teenage dudes, or other boring tropes of male self-actualisation like going out into the wilderness, or bonding with older guys to learn some Truth about masculinity.

In any case, I imagine the thematic and narrative focus here partly has something to do with its setting in late-70s San Francisco, as well as being based on the autobiography of Phoebe Gloeckner, a cartoonist growing up under the artistic influence of such figures as Aline Kominsky (mentioned here, later married to Robert Crumb). I’ve read her first published anthology, A Child’s Life, and it’s fantastic not to mention quite boldly graphic (Gloeckner also spent some time as a medical illustrator). Some of the nastier edges have been toned down in the film, but there are still magical little efflorescences of animation that crop up every so often around Minnie.

However, aside from its singular focus and unapologetic take on adolescent sexuality, the film also chiefly benefits from the performance of Bel Powley, largely a newcomer to film (although previously on TV in the UK, and the undoubted comic star of A Royal Night Out earlier this year), who impresses as Minnie largely for her unaffected ingenuousness and wide-eyed wonder, without ever feeling the need to dress up for the attention of men. As it’s based around her recorded diaries, there’s a fair amount of teenage solipsism, but this never overwhelms the story and is generally treated as gentle comic fodder, as Minnie knocks about from one adventure to another. Being told from Minnie’s point of view, Alexander Skarsgård’s Monroe is a sort of affable loser rather than anyone more threateningly creepy, while her mother just seems strangely absent (something Kristen Wiig, playing it straight, is very good at doing), though the appearance of her feared stepdad Pascal (Christopher Meloni) is a brief but enjoyable cameo and his advice sets up Minnie’s closure with Monroe perfectly, though you’ll really have to go see the film to know what I’m talking about. So I recommend doing that. It’s certainly not what you’d usually expect from an 18-rated film.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Marielle Heller (based on the graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures by Phoebe Gloeckner); Cinematographer Brandon Trost; Starring Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Kristen Wiig; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Saturday 8 August 2015.

The East (2013)

It’s always a precarious thing, trying to capture in a fiction film a flavour of contemporary counterculture. You only have to look back to attempts to depict the earnest ferment of young minds in the 1970s to see how laughable the outcome can seem in hindsight. Of course that’s not entirely fair: it’s not all to do with the filmmakers or the period fashions. In part, it’s to do with the way that earnestness (much like faith) comes across on film: in the darkness of the auditorium, passively taking in images, it’s difficult not to be a jaded, judgemental cynic. This is never more so than when faced with the passionate belief of characters who are trying to actively engage with a corrupt system. There are times when the protagonists of The East, young ecological activists (anarchists, perhaps, or “terrorists” to the authorities), come across as a bit ridiculous, but they’re certainly not fools.

Fiction film has never seemed a particularly effective medium for protest, and I can’t imagine it ever being so. There have always been attempts to create films that challenge the viewer and move the argument beyond the auditorium, whether the bold agitprop of Soviet filmmakers in the 1920s, or Latin American filmmakers like Fernando Solanas with La hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1968), who actually programmed in discussion breaks to screenings. Fiction’s strength is in being able to give a bit of insight as to how activists operate and why they do what they do, and perhaps thereby create doubt in the viewer’s mind as to the veracity of society’s orthodoxies. As such the protagonist here is Jane, a corporate spy played by co-writer Brit Marling, who infiltrates the group as an undercover agent called Sarah, and comes to harbour doubts about what she’s doing.

Aside from being the title of the film, The East is the name the activists give to their group, which engages in ‘jams’ — which is to say, interventions against corporations they perceive have wronged people or the environment. The film opens with video footage they’ve uploaded to the internet showing them pumping oil into the home of a CEO whose company is responsible for massive oil spills. However, as the company is a client of Jane/Sarah’s firm, she is assigned to get information on them that they can then pass to the FBI. As the company’s boss Sharon, Patricia Clarkson does an excellent job as confidant (and arch-manipulator) of the younger Jane.

It’s clear that the activists are all well-educated middle-class kids, many having coming from the same enshrined power base as the capitalist moguls they are targeting. Their choice in resisting and fighting against these power structures is shown to be a result of their education and world travel. As a result, on several occasions in the film their resistance group seems closer to a cult: they have a leader figure filled with a sort of evangelical zeal (Alexander Skarsgård’s Benji), not to mention rituals of initiation and group bonding that reaffirm their communal social structure and attachment to the environment. It’s Jane/Sarah’s experience that mediates this for the audience, and the precarious line the film must walk is in moving from our initial shared experience of their group as being rather affectedly ridiculous, to one in which Sarah (and hopefully the audience too) feels more sympathy and engagement with their beliefs.

The East is in the end a gripping film that never mocks or condescends to its earnest protagonists, as they engage with real issues affecting the world. Playing the wary central character, who limns the divide between the forces of authority and anarchy, Brit Marling does a wonderful job, yet I’m not sure that either she or the film manages to quite carry me through as an audience member to the denouement. In the darkness of a cinema, I remain a cynic to the end, but then I equally can’t imagine the film’s activists being much enamoured of cinema and its passive spectatorship. Still, it’s a bold attempt to try to be more than just a petit bourgeois escapist pleasure, while being satisfying on just that level.

The East film posterCREDITS
Director Zal Batmanglij; Writers Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling; Cinematographer Roman Vasyanov Роман Васьянов; Starring Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson; Length 116 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 30 June 2013.