It’s a common observation that parents’ conduct affects their children, so that one generation behaves differently from the one before. This creates cycles: we think that strict parenting in the ’50s led to the vibrant counterculture waves of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and that when these kids had kids, their irresponsibility and solipsism produced the 21st century’s neurotic helicopter paradigm.
That paradigm can make ’70s-style loose parenting look strange now, as in those jaw-dropping scenes in Mad Men when Betty drives the kids in the car without seatbelts or the picnicking family simply flings their garbage off the blanket into the grass. But Betty’s like many parents in the ’60s and ’70s, indulging in drugs, rock, and spouse-swapping, leaving their children to act like adults while they lay passed out on the shag carpet.
Marielle Heller’s adaption of Phoebe Gloeckner’s excellent graphic novel captures that specific, lurching dynamic to the degree that those of us who lived through it might find ourselves dropping our jaws in recognition. We follow the exploits of Minnie (Bel Powley), a 15-year-old aspiring cartoonist growing up in the epicenter of countercultural tumult, 1976 San Francisco. The first thing she tells us — “I just had sex. Holy shit!” — sets the film’s tone.
It turns out the person with whom she’s had sex is Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), the boyfriend of her whipped-out, boozed-up, proto-feminist mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig). This begins a months’ long affair, with the two meeting up in his apartment (with its celestial view of the city through large, plate-glass windows) as Minnie moves further and further from her mom’s waning influence.
Not that her mother represents much of a safe harbor. Charlotte routinely brings the parties back home to her place, snorting coke, smoking weed, and drinking in front of Minnie and her incredulous younger sister, Gretl (Abby Wait), occasionally dispensing opinions on Patty Hearst (she’s a defender) and feminism (which she thinks helps define her). Minnie’s negotiation of such chaos helps us to see beyond the era’s usual symbols, the Polaroids, bellbottoms, and pop art. While Charlotte denies herself nothing, her kids have to figure out their transitions to adulthood through incredibly painful, and sometimes dangerous, trial and error.
Minnie’s transition involves deceit and increasing distress with Monroe, and then a turn, when she leaves home after her mother discovers the relationship. As she discovers that adults can be exploitative and cynical (even her relationship with an older woman leads to her getting pimped out for drugs in short order), Minnie develops her raw intelligence and advanced sense of self, sometimes manipulating in her own way. She keeps an audio diary of her affair with Monroe, right away recognizing it as a turning point in her life, and pursues her talent as a comic book artist.
Monroe, for his part, is reasonably thoughtful, which helps to complicate what might have been a winsome story about statutory rape. Like everyone around him, he’s working hard to discover an inner truth, eventually attending EST encounters and constantly looking for self-help medications. When he and Minnie share tabs of acid, his trip turns virulent, leaving him sobbing into her lap, telling her over and over again how much he loves her. At this point, she finally sees through his adult façade into the scared, helpless child he actually is. The relationship stripped bare of romanticism, she wants nothing more to do with him.
Through it all, Minnie works on her art, even reaching out to Ailene Crumb for affirmation (which is kindly returned). This proves to be her salvation, after the failures of school, romance, and her mother, so that we might see Diary of a Teenage Girl as a portrait of the cartoonist as a young woman. Near the end of the film, Minnie sees Monroe as she’s selling her sketches near the beach. They’re now two sober grown-ups, embarking on their separate journeys.