Month: August 2015

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Heller, 2015)

There are so few films about teenage girls. The ones that do exist – and some, like Ghost World and My Summer of Love, are great – are almost entirely written and directed by men. Whilst teenage boys have countless stories about growing up, discovering their sexuality, becoming an adult, there are very few reflections on young womanhood that draw from actual experience, that are written by women, for women. So it’s great that we have The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a film that has a woman in every major role behind and in front of the camera, and as a result is a direct, honest and daring portraits of burgeoning adulthood, in either gender.

Set in the mid-70s, it concerns the 15-year-old Minnie (a fearless Bel Powley), whose recently awoken libido fixates upon her mother’s boyfriend, the 30-something Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), who is only happy to indulge her. He’s taking advantage of her, but this is less statutory rape than it is emotional manipulation –  but he’s also taking advantage of her mother (Kirsten Wiig), who is just as needy and vulnerable as she is. This is no cautionary tale. Minnie doesn’t fully grasp the toll that the Monroe is having on her, but she still has her own agency, and she’s still making her own decisions. It’s not even him that she’s infatuated with – she just wants to have sex, and Monroe, with his charm and his openly sexual manner, is the person who is most available to her. She falls for him not because of him, but to reassure herself that she is worth loving. As she says: “I want a body pressed up next to me, just to know that I’m really here.”

He’s only one thread of the tapestry, too – part of what sets Diary apart from its peers is that it’s not small or contained. This is no slice-of-life; it’s a chronicle, tracking her journey from scared, confused girl to young woman, and it moves through its moods and incidents with tremendous fluidity and confidence. Minnie’s journey goes to some genuinely dark places in the film’s final third, and the film doesn’t water down or excuse any of the poor decisions she makes. Minnie’s path to adulthood isn’t easy, Diary suggests, but it is necessary, and it does happen.

And even if it doesn’t happen to every girl, if most’s teenage years aren’t quite as extreme, her feelings and her actions will be recognisable and reassuring to myriads who are never told by the media that their libidos, their wants, and their fears are normal, that look and be a certain way þ one that appeals to men. It’s a film that’s destined to resonate with anyone who’s ever felt alienated by the lack of people like them in mainstream media. So it’s a true outrage that the BBFC deigned to give Diary an 18 certificate for scenes that they wouldn’t bat an eyelid at had the genders been reversed. So I implore you, young teenage girls: get fake IDs, sneak in the back exit, buy a ticket to Minions and go into the other screen, because this film is about you, and it’s for you.

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Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (Decker, 2014)

I was a huge fan of Josephine Decker’s first film, Butter on the Latch, when I caught it last year. It was a strange, hallucinatory reflection upon female friendship set in a Balkan folk music camp, and its radical style could easily be compared to Terence Malik or David Lynch, but had an intense, dark physicality of its own. Her second feature, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, employs that same style to such a similar extent as to consider the two films a diptych, but her sophomore feature improves on the promise of Butter on the Latch in almost every way, providing greater clarity in terms of plot without sacrificing any of the elliptical expressiveness that made her first feature so remarkable.

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely concerns Akin (Joe Swanberg), a young, married man who conceals this fact about himself when he goes to work at a farm set out of time and place. There he meets Sarah (Sophie Traub, in an absolutely fearless performance), the daughter of the hostile farm owner Jeremiah (Robert Longstreet), and begins a passionate affair. Sarah is wild and volatile, and Akin never feels fully at ease with either family member, even as he slowly becomes more engrossed in this little world. When his wife eventually comes to visit, things take a turn more explicitly into horror and the tensions that were brewing under the surface bubble up spectacularly.

The film’s key focus is on Sarah, who is a singular creation unlike anything I’ve seen before. She is defined by her raw, earthy sexuality, at once completely unguarded whilst somehow also being manipulative and scheming, sometimes startlingly direct and other times enigmatic and veiled. Speaking at a Q&A at the BFI last weekend, Decker spoke of how she was inspired by Cathy from East of Eden, and that writers in film and literature are often afraid to tap into the darker parts of female sexuality. Sarah spends large portions of the film writhing alone in animalistic sexual ecstasy with the landscape, but this isn’t as simple or reductive as a celebration of her feminine attunement to the natural world; there’s a real monstrousness to Sarah that provides us with no easy answers. In voiceover, she’s constantly referring to her lover, but she doesn’t mean Akin. She means death.

And if there’s darkness creeping around the edges of Decker’s film for the most part, they completely envelop it by its close. Decker’s style, as with Butter on the Latch, reduces its characters to body parts and physical movements throughout, and its rare for you to see a face clearly. But for a time towards the end of Mild and Lovely its characters are almost completely abstracted, reduced to breath and sensation. Its eventual closing shot – a panorama that feels like a huge breath of relief after the extreme close-ups that define the rest of the film – has to be one of the most striking we’ll see all year.

But for all its visceralness, what makes Thou Wast Mild and Lovely so unique is the questions it asks. For all of Decker’s sensuous style, she is first and foremost a thinker, and none of her radical expressiveness would be worth anything if there wasn’t a clear voice behind it, asking important questions. Decker will be considered a feminist filmmaker, and rightly so considering her keen engagement with female sexuality and women’s perspectives, but her themes are more universal than that, engaging directly with questions about our relationships with each other, with the natural world, and with our own selves. One can still see Decker developing in these films, still feeling out what works and what doesn’t, but even if moments fall flat, the overall impression is of a unique and powerful voice in independent cinema.