By Ashley Joyce – Washington, DC
Based on graphic novel of the same name by Phoebe Gloeckner, “Diary of a Teenage Girl” chronicles the sexual awakening of 15-year-old Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley), an aspiring cartoonist living in 1970s San Francisco with her immature and hard-partying mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) and prying younger sister, Gretel (Abigail Wait). The film begins as Minnie celebrates a milestone: she has succeeded in losing her virginity to Monroe (Alexander Skårsgard), her mother’s 34-year-old boyfriend.
Rather than use this as the launch pad for a familiar narrative of victimization, or to chronicle a downward spiral a la Catherine Hardwicke’s “Thirteen” (2003), first-time director Marielle Heller pulls off a far more challenging feat – depicting a teenage girl’s sex life without judgment or shades of moral panic. Her approach to Minnie’s dalliances is refreshingly frank, never stripping the protagonist of her agency in circumstances fraught with power imbalances.
To be clear, Heller doesn’t let Monroe off the hook for his actions. He’s everything one would expect of an adult man carrying on a sexual relationship with a teenage girl: emotionally stunted, predatory and selfish. But we’re also able to see him through Minnie’s eyes as an appealing alternative to her inexperienced classmates as well as a gatekeeper to adulthood and all of its freedoms.
Minnie quickly discovers a friends-with-benefits arrangement with Monroe is not as glamorous as she imagined. He continues to date her mother and brushes off Minnie’s attempts to get to know him on a deeper level (in one particularly poignant scene, she gently prods him to tell her his favorite color – truly, any kernel of information will suffice). He belittles her artwork, though she is immensely talented, and halfheartedly rejects her advances when conscience and public scrutiny interferes.
Minnie is also assailed throughout the film by toxic messages directed towards young women about their bodies and sexual expression. After reminiscing about her own heyday, Minnie’s mother encourages her to wear more fitted clothing, warning her daughter she has a limited window of time in which to show off her body before she becomes invisible to men.
And whenever Minnie expresses a desire to have sex, her male partners ask if she’s a “nympho,” unnerved by her lack of passivity. When Minnie finally succeeds in communicating with her hero, cartoonist Aline Kominsky, Aline says it’s refreshing to hear from a young woman, since so many of her male fans only write with the intention of hitting on her.
Of course, it’s through these moments of insult, heartbreak and disappointment that Minnie begins to acknowledge that love and sex do not always overlap, and that she may have to rely on personal fortitude over romantic validation.
Some critics have described “Diary” as squirm-inducing, and it’s easy to see why – few films in the female coming-of-age subgenre have so accurately captured the stages of epiphany that accompany early sexual experiences in all their rawness and naiveté. It’s a remarkable achievement, and hopefully we can look forward to more outstanding work from Marielle Heller and her breakthrough star, Bel Powley, whose performance makes “Diary” a must-see.
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is in limited theatrical release now.