“Irrational Man” & “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”


            In a post-religious culture, where are the ethical moorings?  Certainly not the Bible. (It's largely ignored as a motley collection of moldy legends reflecting values of earlier eras.)  Certainly not ministers.  (Also largely ignored as an unpleasant collection of judgmental nerds representing outmoded ideas.)

            So how do we make moral decisions?  Just do what we feel like doing, and maybe think about the consequences later?  What happens then?

            In “Irrational Man,” Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe, a philosophy professor hired on at a small college, who's an instant hit with the students, because he's so scathingly honest.  Sure, he's also caustic, sarcastic, morose, and susceptible to sweeping generalizations, such as, “The Existentialists thought that all experience needs to be personal.”  Yet even his forays into Immanuel Kant's categorical imperatives (when has that ever been discussed in a Hollywood movie?) somehow make connections with the students, one in particular, Jill (Emma Stone). 

            OK, before you start internal

ly groaning with one of those “Oh no, not another professor veering and leering toward an inappropriate relationship with a student,” this movie is....yes, exactly like that.  Abe and Jill take longs walks together where he plays the wizened old sad sack, and she brings her youthful enthusiasm and energy to try to cheer him up, and though he at first deflects her advances, reminding her that she has a boyfriend, eventually he succumbs to her charms, after trying but failing to get interested in someone more his own age.

            Our over-educated, loquacious, introspective lush has now managed to justify that despicable behavior to himself, so why stop there?  Since he's smarter than everyone else, he can also justify to himself a premeditated act of violence in order to help a random stranger be rid of an unwanted obstacle.  Yes, by rejecting conscience you make a shipwreck of faith (I Timothy 1:19).  Not to mention your relationships with others.

            “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is based on a 2002 comic/graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner.  Set in San Francisco at the height of the 1970s hippie movement, Minnie ( 23-year-old British actress Bel Powley) is a 15-year-old girl with a disastrous home life.  Her mother Charlotte (a very unfunny version of Kristen Wiig) is into the free love, pot-smoking, partying, do-what-you-please subculture.  She has a boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), but they don't live together, and “they're not exclusive”(according to Minnie).  Minnie also has an annoyingly nosy younger sister, and an absent divorced father, whom she rarely sees because he lives in another city (we meet him once).

            So basically Minnie is left to her own devices, with seemingly no rules and no boundaries and no supervision, as she enters into her adolescent sexual awakening.  At first, it's just self-examination in front of the mirror (the nudity is inert and almost clinical).  But then, the raging hormones attach to the nearest target, which is....the boyfriend.  Monroe can't resist doing mother and daughter (see “The Graduate”);  even the guilt is delicious.  His clumsy occasional self-loathing pushes her away, temporarily, but now she's ready to branch out in her experimentation, attaching herself to a local party scene complete with drug use and partner-swapping.  The tragic part is that she's 15, not 23.  The sad part is that she's looking for love in all the wrong places.  She says she just wants someone to touch her with tenderness, but what she finds out there is a lot of self-absorbed callousness out there, which is what she's always found at home.  By the time Charlotte emerges from her stoned, inebriated stupor, and realizes what's happened, the damage is done. 

            We're supposed to think of this as a kind of “coming of age” movie, a young woman trying to find her identity as a female, a sexual being, a seeker of personal fulfillment.  It's really early feminism, because her inordinate inappropriate attachment to her first man convinces her that she really doesn't need men to be self-fulfilled.  But she can't undo her promiscuous behavior, and we can't un-see her poignant story, either.  The psychedelic art work in this film lends a “Sergeant Pepper” feel, but the content here is way too graphic for a genteel church audience.


Questions For Discussion:

1)                  How awkward was your own sexual awakening?

2)                  Have you ever been tempted to indulge in a relationship that you knew was wrong?

3)                  How do you suggest that teens today embark on their voyage of self-discovery?


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Supply Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Kaufman, Texas