Sex, Drugs and Female Empowerment in Wonderful “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”

Diary of a Teenage Girl

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller, 2015)

Be forewarned, O faint of heart, that this movie features inappropriate sex between an adult male and a teenage girl. Even more alarming, that girl craves the sex, and more. Sure, she may be underage, and he may be taking advantage of her, but that doesn’t stop young Minnie Goetze, our fearless protagonist, from going for what she wants and wanting what she gets (for the most part). The Diary of a Teenage Girl, adapted from the 2002 text/graphic novel hybrid of the same title by Phoebe Gloeckner – and already previously adapted as a stage play by the same writer/director of this new cinematic edition, Marielle Heller – is a bold work that cares not one iota about our prudishness and/or potential shock at its taboo subject matter. It’s all about Minnie and her peculiar coming of age in 1976 San Francisco. As she slowly grows from child to woman (in ways far beyond the physical), we watch as she unashamedly proclaims her desires and follows through on them, consequences be damned. Conceived by women, produced by women, and firmly about women, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a masterful feminist tour de force that eschews polemical talking points and focuses instead on the highly entertaining – if at times alarming – journey of one very special young person.

Before watching the film, I first read the book, which I recommend to any and all, regardless of whether or not you see the movie. In it, Minnie sometimes recounts her adventures in comic form (she’s an aspiring graphic artist), but most often through the text in her diary. I was curious to see how Heller would handle both elements in the film. For the diary, she chooses to have Minnie record her thoughts on tape. In some ways, this is unfortunate, since it makes Minnie much less of a writer – an integral part of the source material – but it does thereby make the resultant voiceover flow logically from the action (I routinely dislike unmotivated voiceover in film). After my initial disappointment in this device, I quickly forgot about it, and just sat back to enjoy. As for the comics, Heller chooses to animate them, and thus creates many a magical moment where hand-drawn images wash over the screen, blurring the line between Minnie’s imagination and reality. I particularly like the way that Heller has additional animations hover around Minnie at crucial points (such as after sex) in the narrative. Make no mistake, this is a truly cinematic adaptation of the book. Heller has thought long and hard about how to handle the story in its new medium.

The marvelous – and relatively unknown – young British actress Bel Powley (Side by Side) plays Minnie. She’s in her early 20s, but easily looks 15 (maybe even 14). We meet her at the very start of the movie as she utters the words that set the tone for the entire enterprise: “I had sex today.” It turns out that her lover is a man 20 years her senior, Monroe, who also happens to be involved with her mother, Charlotte. The Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård (The East) plays the former with a wonderfully vague dopiness that recalls the young Bill Pullman in Ruthless People, while American comic-turned-now-serious actress Kristen Wiig (The Skeleton Twins) plays the latter as a doped-up narcissist too intent on her own good time to see what’s going on in her own apartment. Both provide adequate support, along with the rest of the cast, but this is really Powley’s film, her “coming out,” so to speak. She owns every frame, and helps us stay focused on her, rather than on the criminal neglect and abuse of the adults in her life. And in spite of the sex, and the eventual drugs and threats of rape, Powley helps us see that Minnie’s story is also filled with wonder and a fair amount of humor.

Truth be told, though, I was the only one laughing at my screening, perhaps because, having read the book, I knew what to expect; but trust me, it’s funny. And ask yourself: how often do you get to see a movie where the sexual desires of a woman (of any age) are front and center? What’s even better is that this is ultimately not about sex, but about Minnie learning to love herself. I would recommend to all parents of teenage girls, but given the R rating (there’s plenty of nudity, alcohol and drugs, beyond the sex) and tricky subject matter, I think it better that parents see it first, then bring their daughters. Marylanders, especially, should see the movie, since its development was partially funded by a grant from the Maryland Film Festival. But really, everyone should see it.


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