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Friday, October 23, 2015

The Diary of a Teenage Girl vs Me, Earl and the Dying Girl

I haven't reviewed Me and Earl and the Dying Girl yet so I thought I'd team it up with this week's much tougher coming-of-age story. They certainly make for an interesting double bill.

My review of The Diary of a Teenage Girl is up at Channel 24, but first a couple of quick words on Me and Earl.

In many respects, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is the quirkier, more indie version of the Fault in Our Stars. Again, it's about teenagers dealing with a terminal disease and again there is still the irony of it also being about growing up.

Our hero of the piece, Greg (Thomas Mann)  makes amateur parodies of classic films with his co-worker (really best friend) Earl and he spends his whole life trying to remain invisible in a school divided along arbitrary but rigid lines. When Greg befriends "the dying girl" Rachel (Olivia Cooke) though, who has just been diagnosed with a otentiallyp curable form of leukemia, he is forced to confront his aloof relationship with others and his own thoughts on mortality and life.

It's a lovely, touching and very funny film, with great performances and a terrifically  sharp script by the author of the novel on which it is based, Jesse Andrews. The film parodies are charming and give the film a nicely off-kilter vibe but obviously it's the relationship between our three protagonists that really sell the film. It is, admittedly, a bit lopsided as the first half is incredibly funny and the second half kind of isn't but my biggest issue with it really is just about the biggest compliment I could give it: I wanted to spend more time with these characters and Rachel in particular so I felt kind of short-changed as it ended. It's also not quite as moving as the Fault in Our Stars but, on the other hand, it is funnier and more inventive.

It's good, good stuff basically and well worth checking out.

Now, as for The Diary of a Teenage Girl, things are a wee bit more complicated...

What it's about

Minnie is a teenage girl and amateur cartoonist living in 1970s San Francisco with her dysfunctional hippy mother and bratty kid sister but when she hooks up with her mother's deadbeat boyfriend.

What we thought

Standing in stark contrast to the more mainstream coming-of-age films of the last few years, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a drug-fueled, highly sexual take on adolescence and dysfunctional families. It's nowhere near as enjoyable as The Way, Way Back; Me and Earl and the Dying Girl or Paper Towns but it has an audacity and a fearlessness to it that sets it apart.

And it has Bel Powley.

Make no mistake, Marielle Heller does a great job writing and directing an adaptation of Phoebe Gloekner's autobiographical graphic novel but its real ace in the hole is Powley who is uncomfortably believable as our fifteen-year-old anti-hero. She had a show-stealing performance in A Royal Night Out but her performance here, with a convincing American accent in tow, is a real eye-opener.

Between her highly dysfunctional home life, her self-loathing and her willingness to throw herself into a lifestyle of reckless sex and drugs to fill the emptiness in her life, Minnie is a fragile, emotionally raw and not always sympathetic protagonist and Powley portrays her with all the (sometimes literally) naked honesty that such a character requires.

For all her self-destructive antics, it's hard not to care deeply about this poor mixed up kid whose desperate need to "graduate" from childhood to adulthood causes her to do some monumentally stupid things along the way and that's all because of the hot-blooded, warm-hearted humanity that Powley injects into the character. The controversial, sometimes ugly nature of this film means that there's little chance of it happening but if there was any justice in the world Powley would be up for lead actress in every major awards ceremony in the upcoming awards season. She really is that good.

Bel Powley aside, however, the film is slightly more hit and miss, which stops me from every wholly embracing it the way I have so many of its contemporary coming-of-age movies.

On the negative side, its ending feels largely sudden and unsatisfying and Minnie's almost obsessive-compulsive attitude to sexuality and drugs doesn't always strike the most universal of notes. Most teenagers are pretty obsessed with sex, of course, but I'm pretty sure that for most of us – or at least the geekier and socially awkward of us - it had neither the self-destructive edge that it does here nor the frequency.

Most disappointing, though, is that while it's refreshing for a teenage-centric film to feature a girl having as much - if not more - sex as the guys usually do in all those raunchy teenage sex comedies, rather than being a sex-positive or empowering portrayal, Minnie's entire relationship with sex comes across as highly dysfunctional, perhaps even pathological. Though I'm sure both Ms. Heller and Ms. Gloekner would disagree strongly with me on this.

And, honestly, I'm kind of willing to give them the benefit of the doubt because for all its misjudged stumbles, unsatisfying ending and general feeling of ickiness that may well have the more prudish among us sharpening their pitchforks (though, in this case at least, I do sort of see where they're coming from too), but it's impossible to deny the emotional power of the piece or its defiant fearlessness. It's also surprisingly stylish for something so gritty (and occasionally grotty) and has an excellent supporting cast, including Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgard and Christopher Meloni. Plus, to counteract somewhat its tougher moments, it is quite funny at times and Heller injects some whimsical animations in the style of '70s underground comix to further lighten up the proceedings – even when the animations themselves are as uncomfortably weird and depraved as R. Crumb and co's '70s comics often were.

So yes, it's not perfect and it's not for the squeamish and I don't personally love it nearly as much as I do the more accessible and affable recent entries in its genre, but the Diary of a Teenage Girl is still a terrifically eccentric and emotionally honest coming-of-age film that is worth seeing, if for no other reason than to see one of the year's best performances by an incredible relative newcomer.  

So that's two very different moves from pretty much the same genre and they both get - though for ofte different reasons...

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