MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS: Diary of a Teenage Girl and Grandma


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Warning: SPOILERS
diaryI remember back in 1987 when Dirty Dancing came out, I was a little surprised that in all the positive reaction to the film, no one was mentioning the fact that a teenage girl was having an affair with a much older man. In fact, women loved this movie about first love and sexual awaking.
When Lolita was released in 1962, the movie was not so much seen as a dramatization of the horrors of pedophilia, but a tragi-comic character study of a man obsessed with his step-daughter, a step-daughter who did as much of the seducing as did the aging roué.
In 1984’s Blame it on Rio, Michael Caine has sex with his best friend’s daughter and the whole thing is played as a farce. It was even called incest by proxy by some and many found the move tres amusement.
Woody Allen’s films like Manhattan (1979) were probably the main ones the drew some hesitation, but even in his black and white paean to a city filled with morally questionable neurotics, his relationship with the high school nymphet was seen as the most pure and Mariel Hemingway got an Oscar nom.
Even Roman Polanski got the brunt of the sympathy as he fled the country to try and restart his film career in Europe.
But this was an earlier time when sex between older men and teenage girls wasn’t quite held in the same low esteem as it is today.
And oh, my, the times they have been a changing. Back then we had the new morality. Today, we have the new, new morality where sex between an adult and someone below the age of consent is no longer seen as acceptable and even considered damaging to the teen. Legally it’s always been called statutory rape, but until more recently, that term was not used much in terms of these relationships in movies.
The new movie Diary of a Teenage Girl, written and directed by the actor Marielle Heller (she can be seen in such films as A Walk Among the Tombstones and MacGruber), based on the autobiographical novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, falls somewhere in between today and yesterday.

 

diary 2The older/younger relationship is not seen as necessarily healthy and is often somewhat unnerving. At the same time, the people in the movie are not that upset that rape of the statutory kind is going on. In fact, the main issue for the central character’s mother is not that her daughter is having sex with an older man, but that the older man is her boyfriend.

 

One of the most interesting aspects of the movie is the ambiguity of the morality involved. The sex is frank and frequent as well as matter of fact and the screenplay doesn’t try to tell you what is right and wrong here, but is more trying to explore these characters by letting them be who they are.

 

The film is not so much trying to pass judgement as just relate what happened.

 

This ambiguity will probably disturb a lot of people. But disturbing or not, it’s one of the strengths of the movie.

 

The basic premise revolves around Minnie, a high school wannabe artist who is ready to have sex. But she wants to have sex with her mother’s boyfriend Monroe. Though in many ways Minnie leads the seduction, Monroe never once thinks about stopping her and is more than willing to go as far as Minnie wants.

 

From Minnie’s perspective, her world is normal and even exciting. And it’s not just the sex that is free and available. In fact, what I found more disturbing than Minnie’s sexual escapades are the way the adults give little thought to their offsprings’ drinking and drugging. At one point, Charlotte, Minnie’s mother, doesn’t want to go out with Monroe for two for one night at a bar. So she tells Monroe to take Minnie, and no one seems to bat an eye as she sits at a table, obviously too young to be in a tavern, drinking with the man she lusts after.

 

And that’s nothing to the drugs that Minnie indulges in, attending parties where everyone’s high and getting some LSD so she and Monroe can trip out and do the deed.

 

The movie also does one other thing that gives more sympathy to the Minnie/Monroe relationship that is either very clever or very repulsive depending on how you feel about the movie, and that is Minnie’s father who shows up everyone once in awhile. As played by Christopher Meloni, he’s so weird and unpleasant and unlikeable, that it’s hard not to be glad that Minnie has found someone relatively normal who does really care about her even if she is having sex with that person.

 

It also takes place in 1970’s San Francisco. If it had taken place today, I can’t imagine what the outcry would be like. But setting back then, we look at it and say, well, you know, it was the summer of love and inhibitions were being lowered and love was everywhere. It was a different time.

 

The film is wonderful to look at. The production detail is marvelous and the look at the film always has an overcast patina to it, a feeling of faded photographs and overexposure. And it’s rife with our teen’s imagination taking flight in cartoon interludes that reveal her feelings or give her other characters to talk about. These are wonderful moments of visual cinema.

 

The main issue is that it is one of those films with a false ending. Once Monroe and Minnie trip out and Monroe declares his feelings for Monroe, Minnie suddenly realizes she doesn’t really love him, that this relationship isn’t working.

 

But instead of wrapping things up here, it goes off on a side trip concerning Minnie’s relationship with a woman, a through line that doesn’t seem to take the story or her character anywhere. She’s already realized that her life isn’t going in a good direction, it’s unclear what these extra scenes tell us or her that hasn’t already been revealed.

 

London born Bel Powley plays Minnie with an impeccable accent, haunting owl like eyes, and a deeply empathetic performance, and Kristin Wiig continues to stretch herself in the role of Charlotte who is not in line to win Mother of the Year. Alexander Skarsgard is Wile E. Coyote appealing as Monroe.

 

grandmaIn the great Ingmar Bergman’s great 1957 film Wild Strawberries, a professor takes a car ride to receive an award and on his way revisits his past and the events that made him who he is today.

 

In the very effective, though not as great (but we are talking Bergman here, so what can you do) film Grandma, written and directed by Paul Weitz, an older poet also goes on a car ride and is forced to revisit the events in her life that made her the person she is today.

 

But she’s not on her way to receive an award.

 

In Weitz’ version, she’s on her way trying to raise $600 so her granddaughter can get an abortion.

 

There are many things one might say about Grandma, yay and nay, but in the end, one has to admit that no matter what else it is, it is immensely enjoyable and a lot of fun.

 

Of course, as anyone who hasn’t had their head stuck in a hole in the ground, the main reason for this is Lily Tomlin, who has the title role, playing Elle Reid, an aging rhyme master who hasn’t produced anything she’s willing to share in public in years; a lesbian whose lover has died (in the opening scene, she brutally breaks up with a younger woman she’s been seeing for a few months); a mother who is estranged from her daughter; a septuagenarian (or octogenarian, I can’t quite remember) who is barely making it by money-wise.

 

It’s been some time since Lily Tomlin has had a role like this. Starting out as a comedian (she created such memorial characters as Edith Anne and Ernestine, the telephone operator on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In: “we don’t have to care, we’re the phone company”), she did a series of memorable dramatic roles starting with an Oscar nominated one from Nashville, an underrated one in The Late Show, and perhaps most brilliantly, the one woman show written for her by her long time lover Jane Wagner, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.

 

Yes, it’s been some time since Tomlin has been given a role she can really make her own and that is what she does here, and with a vengeance. She tears into Elle with a ferocity and never lets go. She’s bitter, angry, guilt ridden, regretful, witty, exciting, sexy and ultimately life affirming—sometimes all at once.

 

You may not want to go on this ride with her, but I’m not sure it’s wise to say no; she’s not pretty when she’s angry (and she’s almost never not angry).

 

Perhaps the only actor in the movie that can match her line for line is Sam Elliot, who plays Karl, her ex-lover (yes, that’s right; she had an affair with him when was a confused lesbian). I’m not sure that Elliot in all of his years would have seen himself in his glory days playing the sexy but sensitive alpha male (he does the same thing in I’ll See You In My Dreams), but he’s marvelous here. The two have wonderful chemistry together and their scene is a bitter but moving set piece

 

The cast is completed with Julia Garner as Sage the granddaughter and Marcia Gay Harden as Judy, Lily’s no-nonsense lawyer daughter.

 

Also on hand is Harold, I mean, John Cho as the owner of a coffee shop/café who asks Elle and Sage to leave, sending Elle into one of her patented tirades; Elizabeth Pena as the owner of a bookstore where Elle learns that her first edition autographed feminist books are no longer worth as much as she thought (metaphor much); and Judy Greer as Elle’s lover (there’s a very funny scene where Elle shows up on Judy’s doorstep as she’s having dinner with her parents—awkward).

 

This is probably Paul Weitz’s best screenplay since Antz. It’s not especially profound and it ends as these sorts of films often do—life lessons are learned, characters arc and people come to understand each other (Bergman’s Wild Strawberries is a bit bleaker).

 

From that perspective, I’m not sure there’s much there. But what he does have are strong characters, great dialog and some wonderful moments.

 

And anyway, when you have Lily Tomlin in the role of a life time, what else do you really need?

 

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