The other day I came to a startling conclusion: noted Antichrist Marilyn Manson is a lot less scary than heartlands rocker John Mellencamp. Sure, Manson said and did a lot of shocking things in his prime, but at the end of the day it was all shtick; it was remarkably easy to write him off the instant he wore out his welcome. In contrast when Mellencamp sings "life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone" in Jack and Diane - well, that is truly dark because it is real. Sometimes that song will come on in a supermarket or in a restaurant and I will find myself thinking about all of the millions of ways that life can be unfulfilling and a wave of anxiety will come over me; the concept haunts me because I'm all too aware of how many people actually do lead miserable lives.
Similarly, I've watched a lot of horror movies this Halloween season and none of them have been anywhere near as scary as the completely murder-free coming of age story Diary of a Teenage Girl. Yes, psycho doctors and ghosts and zombies are all frightening in their own way, but at the end of the day it is easy to write them off because they are clearly fiction. But Diary of a Teenage girl - well, that haunted me because it felt thoroughly real from start to finish.
Diary's titular teenager is a fifteen year old named Minnie who lives in San Francisco with her mother and younger sister. She is a sweet kid, but her out of control hormones keep driving her to make big mistakes. She tries to seduce her mom's hard-partying boyfriend Monroe just because he's there. She goes up to some strange men in a bar and offers them a five dollar blow job just because she can. Minnie occasionally flirts with some boys in her school that seem like decent enough dudes, but before too long she's back to doing drugs with the street kids who dress up for Rocky Horror. All of her decisions have a certain logic to them, but it is bad logic. I understand her desperate need for companionship and validation, but as a man who is old enough to be the father of a teenager I was terrified by how willing she was to risk getting raped.
Spoiler alert: Minnie doesn't get raped in this movie - well, not unless you count statutory rape. (Monroe is twenty years her senior.) But whether she was in her own house or at a sketchy party the threat was always there in the background and it was a threat that I found to be palpably unsettling. Her attempts to achieve euphoria turned her life into a rollercoaster of emotions, but the truth is that the highs can only go so high while the bottom is theoretically endless. Monroe was never going to be her eternal true love - but if she had gotten assaulted by some drunk psychopaths in a bar she could have been scarred for life.
I don’t want to misrepresent this movie; it isn’t a hyperbolic after school special about how out of control today’s teens are. In fact, it is quite the opposite, and not just because it is actually set in 1976. No, Diary of a Teenage Girl is very non-judgmental about Minnie’s behavior, depicting it in a blunt way that never feels like a half-assed cautionary tale. More importantly, Minnie is consistently sympathetic even when she is making her least defensible decisions... But that’s precisely why I was so worried about her. I would never yell “no, don’t open that door” to a horror movie character if I didn’t care about their survival; the only reason why I kept wanting to yell “no, don’t open that door” every time Minnie was about to find herself in another sketchy situation was because I really wanted her to survive her wilderness years relatively unscathed.
And I also need to be clear about something else: my response to this movie says as much about me as it does about the film. I’m sure that quite a few of my female friends would experience Diary in a remarkably different way. Some of them might view it nostalgically; I know quite a few women who went through their struggles, too, and who look back on them fondly for the most part. And others might pick up on the humor of the script; Minnie is a wry character and her sarcastic running commentary will really appeal to a certain brand of smart-ass. But I’ve always been relatively sexually conservative, and I’m also increasingly conscious of how old I am. As such, I found myself viewing her story not as she would see it but as her father might see it, and from that perspective her behavior is fairly appalling. Understandable, but appalling.
On the surface it seems odd that horror movies could ever function as escapist entertainment; all of their horrible sights and sounds should be traumatic, oppressive, literally and figuratively haunting. But most of them do function as escapism because they don't really resemble real life. Horror movies can’t linger on the true face of death because it takes a long time to plan a funeral and even longer to properly grieve; they have to shuffle the bodies out of sight so that the story can continue apace. No, a movie has to have stakes to feel real, and it is hard to take most horror movies seriously because they seem to take place in consequence free universes.
Which gets at why I found Diary of a Teenage Girl to be so nerve-wracking: it is a movie that never stopped having stakes. It is always clear that every choice that Minnie makes will have consequences - the instant she started recording her diary I started worrying about what would happen when someone found it. (And of course someone does find it because her idea of hiding it is putting it in a shoebox underneath her bed.) The film ends on a positive note, and it seems like Minnie might be on the verge of figuring out a few healthier ways to try to achieve happiness - which is good, because I would have been crushed if it hadn't worked out for her. After all, unlike our young heroine I'm all too aware of life's awfulest truth: namely that it keeps going on long after the thrill of living is gone.