The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Marielle Heller's adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner's provocative graphic novel proves to be surprisingly uninvolving.
The story is jam-packed with the kind of business that could be used for a sensationalist cautionary tale: 15-year-old Minnie (played by Heller) isolates in her room with hard drugs away from her mom Charlotte (Mariann Mayberry), has sex with her mom's 30-something boyfriend Monroe (Michael Laurence), and gets gang-raped in a shooting gallery while pursuing a lesbian attraction.
Part of the graphic novel's appeal is that it tells the story through the character's eyes, minus the moralizing. It's a snapshot of survival that is strikingly true to the narrow viewpoint of an adolescent. Heller's adaptation attempts the same effect, but in avoiding authorial judgment, she's neglected to shape the material for dramatic impact. Instead, the story's events, whether dangerous or benign (such as when Minnie and her best friend Kimmie discover The Rocky Horror Picture Show) are lined up in faithful order. Each event is introduced with the direct address narration of a diary entry, but almost every scene has the same weight and importance as the one that preceded it.
The production, co-directed by Rachel Eckerling and Sarah Cameron Sunde, seats the audience within a cocoon of beige panels decorated with bigger-than-life graphic designs. But the huge arrows and flower shapes, while appropriate to the time period, are a bit too kitsch. (With color, it would look like a game show set.) The panels serve as multi-media screens that surround the audience with images, although nothing about this material demands this kind of presentation. Instead, the immersive, unneeded visuals work against the simple honesty and intimacy that the story needs to engage us.
Although she wisely makes the choice not to overplay the mannerisms of a teenager, Heller is at best only modestly convincing, and her characterization is so downbeat that it's hard to sustain interest in Minnie. Nell Mooney has some moments of vibrancy as Kimmie, and Mayberry (best known for her work in August: Osage County) fleshes out her character with remarkable, convincing detail.