30 November 2015

The Age of Discovery

My Mirror column this week:

Two films based on women's memoirs of their teenage years offer rich, nuanced accounts of sexuality, selfhood and what it means to be grown-up

Among the things that made Masaan's opening sequence so memorable was Richa Chadda's striking depiction of a young woman yearning to begin her sexual life. We watch her hungry eyes as she watches a porn video, and then see her stride purposefully towards the sexual rendezvous that will change her life. Devi has shrugged off the cloak of morality that makes female sexuality a burden, and yet her youthful eagerness comes without coyness or giggles.
The frankness of Devi's sexual exploration made Masaan most unusual, especially in the Indian context. But even Masaan focused less on that process of exploration and more on its wider social ramifications. And Devi is a fully grown young woman. What would be truly remarkable would be to see the world through the eyes of a young girl (and not in the thoroughly exploitative manner of Ram Gopal Varma's Nishabd).
Marielle Heller's directorial debut The Diary of a Teenage Girl does exactly that, though in San Francisco, circa 1976. Based on an autobiographical graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, Heller's film casts the marvelous Bel Powley as Minnie Goetz, a 15-year-old schoolgirl who embarks on an affair with Monroe, a 35-year-old man who also happens to be her mother's (Kristen Wiig) boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård).
Given the undeniable controversiality of this plot, the film is remarkable for the freedom it gives Minnie. Heller has been very clear, in interviews, that her interest in Gloeckner's book (she has earlier adapted and performed it as a play) arose from the fact that there are so few honest representations of young female desire. “The media has endlessly told teenage girls that boys are the only ones who are going to want sex. Girls are going to be the ones that don’t want it. Girls are going to want to withhold it until they decide that they are willing to give it to the guy,” Heller has said. “What if you’re a teenage girl who wants to have sex?
She might be 15 and a virgin when The Diary begins, but it is very clear that Minnie's wanting is at the very centre of this narrative. And what makes the film so powerful is her joyous, unabashed sense of discovery – as well as her unaffected confession of her changing feelings. She might be dreamy-eyed to start with, and confused in the middle, but she is also the one with the sharpest view of things as they unfurl. 
The Diary of a Teenage Girl makes for an interesting companion piece to An Education (2009), another exploration of a relationship between a teenaged girl and a middle-aged man, also based on a real-life autobiographical account (journalist Lynn Barber's bestselling memoir) and directed by a woman: the Danish director Lone Scherfig.
Jenny Mellor, the 16-year-old at the centre of An Education, couldn't be more different from Minnie Goetz, at least on the surface. Minnie retains her child-like teariness and her shapeless dungarees, showing no external signs of her sexual awakening (even provoking her mother into suggesting that she might take a greater interest in boys). Jenny's (Carey Mulligan) encounter with the charming David (Peter Sarsgaard), in contrast, soon results in a visible shift to adulthood: she starts to put her hair up and dress in fashionably grown-up clothes, and warns David against baby talk when they have sex for the first time: “Treat me like I'm a grown-up”. In fact Jenny's hunger is really for adulthood itself, rather than sex per se. It is her desire for beautiful things -- classical music concerts, glamorous restaurants and trips to Paris – that draws her to David, and simultaneously allows her to cast a cool, appraising eye at the dullness and poverty of the adult lives she sees around her: her poor, boring, money-grubbing parents, her closed-minded headmistress, even her fiercely hopeful English teacher.
Minnie doesn't do well at school, but she knows she is artistically talented. Jenny is the provincial girl with high culture aspirations—her grades might be perfect, but her sense of self is much more halting.

But much of the difference in the two narratives is also caused by the difference of social settings: in 1961 Britain, a middle class girl's confession of crisis is met by cups of tea and stern, solid advice; in 1976 San Francisco, it can devolve swiftly into a whirlwind of parties, sex and drugs.
Interestingly, in both films, the parents who discover an ongoing relationship between a teenage daughter and a much older man think of marriage as the next step. The difference is that in An Education, Jenny takes it seriously as an option, quick to exchange her dream of an Oxford education for the marital short-cut. In The Diary, set only fifteen years later, Kristen Wiig's angry proposal that Monroe marry Minnie elicits only disdain from the teenager (while the 35-year-old seems relieved, even happy, at this possible resolution).
What both films share, in fact, is a portrayal of adulthood as a layered, complex state in which people can continue to be both vulnerable and confused. Whether it is the surface sophistication of a David, which hides a hollow interior, or Monroe's drug-induced confession of neediness, or whether it is the profound gullibility of the parental figures in both films, it is the adults in either film who remain strangely infantile – and Minnie and Jenny who grow up.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 29th Nov 2015.

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