Based on Phoebe Gockner’s novel, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a complex tale that centres on the often overlooked, although mostly ignored, experience of young women’s sexual discovery. The directorial and writing debut of actress Marielle Heller, the film is a refreshing take on the coming-of-age narrative; sometimes inappropriate, always honest, and never exploitative. Being more thoughtful than normal teen fare, the film is most comparable to the likes of Juno, although with much more sex than its glossy Hollywood counterparts like Easy A.
Set in San Francisco during the mid-nineteen seventies, fifteen-year-old Minnie (Bel Powley) has just lost her virginity, much to her own delight, and has begun narrating her predominately sex focused escapades on a tape recorder. After practically being encouraged by her self-absorbed, librarian mother (Kristen Wiig) to join the drug and alcohol-induced parties that occur almost daily in her home, Minnie begins a torrid affair with her mother’s thirty-something boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). Along with her equally sex-crazed best friend, Kimmie (Madeleine Waters), and against the wishes of her prudish younger sister, Gretel (Abby Wait), Minnie embarks on a sexual journey of self-discovery.
Powley (Equals) delivers an incredibly strong performance as a confused teen, and it’s hard to believe while watching that she’s actually in her early twenties. In taking the role, it is clear that she has left all inhibitions behind, and fully commits to presenting an insightful yet flawed character, imbuing Minnie with a sense of strength – even in her less-than-stellar moments. Wiig (The Skeleton Twins) also brings a top performance and leaves a lasting impact as her coked up mother, bringing likeability to a woman who distances herself physically from Minnie when she is convinced that contact has become too sexual on Minnie’s behalf.
It’s an odd thing not to have an underlying sense of uneasiness when watching an adult man have relations with a depicted minor, but the film takes great care in delivering the graphic relationship between Minnie and Monroe. This seems mainly in result of Heller keeping the narrative strictly from Minnie’s perspective, so that it is always on her terms and not that of others. It’s also due to Skarsgård’s Monroe never becoming creepy, instead presenting him as a genuinely likeable guy, although his choices seem completely dependent on his libido. Though it could have been wiser here to give Monroe a greater sense of desperation or some ill attempt at reclaiming his youth, which, although hinted at in his confused nature, means his motivations come off as predominantly sexual rather than for any deeper reasons.
There’s a consistent problem in films where screenwriters tend to unintentionally write teen characters as if they were adults, with a sense of maturity that is well beyond their years, either due to ignorance or some misguided attempt to rewrite their own awkward youth. Their dialogue is closer to the wise dialogue of a thirty-year-old professional than the true ramblings of a prepubescent teen, still in the process of passing tenth grade English. And while this could be partly true of Diary’s Minnie, who regularly blurts out small nuggets of wisdom, she’s just as equally daft as she is enlightened. In fact, the film captures perfectly that time of young adulthood when you’re both incredibly smart and stupid, as you leave your childhood at the top of the food chain, only to find yourself at the bottom of a much more complex and overall daunting adult one. Minnie frequently makes astute proclamations only to then say or do the opposite, sometimes all within the same sentence, and it’s in these moments that the character’s experience of adolescence truly comes alive.
In the same style as the novel, a psychedelic world of animated images by artist Sara Gunnarsdóttir stands in for Minnie’s imagination, providing a window into her at times conflicting emotions. This live animation normally tends to invoke images of erect penises that stem from Minnie’s intense sexual fascination, although it also helps establish an admiration for her idol: a cartoonist that also explores women’s sexuality in her work.
The most interesting element of Diary is in its presentation of developing female sexuality, which extends beyond simply pining for boys or a glorified ‘first love’. Instead, the film displays the experience of a young woman who is not only infatuated by, but is enthusiastic for, her growing sexual nature. Minnie craves sex, viewing it as both exciting and essential, and as a teen girl has it on her mind almost constantly. Yet, it’s this type of experience that is normally socially associated to their teen male counterparts but denied to them, which is why the film is so important. Although always morally complex, the film holds back on providing any judgment on Minnie’s choices and instead presents an honest depiction of the adolescent journey, pimples and all.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10