Does having sex make someone an adult? When you finally access a sexual potential you’d only ever glimpsed—through crushes on movie stars or fleeting masturbatory fantasy—are you truly changed?
Such questions are answered rashly—and then thoughtfully reconsidered—in Marielle Heller’s superb Diary of a Teenage Girl, based on the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner.
“I had sex today,” Minnie (Bel Powley) tells us at the film’s outset, as she walks in slow-motion through a smoke-hazed San Francisco park, circa 1976. She is speaking into a tape recorder (the diary of the title) and her narration continues throughout the film, revealing how said sex is the catalyst for a whirlwind, up-down emotional tumult—not only because 15-year-old Minnie did the deed with Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), her mother’s 30-something boyfriend.
No, Minnie’s issues extend far beyond herself, her often childish hippie mom (Kristen Wiig), and Monroe’s good-natured but woefully misguided intentions. She is, after all, an average American teenager on some level, and as such we are launched into an onslaught of near-universal dilemmas and questions: Am I pretty? Does school really matter to me? Do other boys and girls notice me? What does love feel like? Is this what love feels like? Oh god, am I in love?
And, of course, am I an adult yet?
What sets Diary apart from other smart teenage fare, though, is a fearless resolve to dig deep into Minnie’s thoughts, and to respect her as a dynamic—often immature—fully sexual being.
The film follows her lead, tracking a dawdling, somewhat aimless course through misadventures and sexual pleasures: her many encounters with Monroe, including an incredibly misguided threesome with another teen friend; her petty fights with a none-too-protective, self-absorbed mother; and a burgeoning interest in cartoons and comic books, manifested as wildly colored, odd and grotesque animated accompaniments to the real world environment.
In fact, when Minnie’s mother, estranged father (Christopher Meloni, in hilarious intellectual mode), Monroe, and best friend all seem too far away to reach, she turns to an imagined version of Aline Kominsky, a feminist cartoonist from whom she draws inspiration.
The whimsy of the animation reads as a perfectly transcribed vision of Minnie’s world; not only do we come to see her as, quite literally, an escape artist, but also as a girl haunted by an overactive mind and an overwhelming connection to sex.
It is both a thematic blessing and curse that Heller’s script focuses so intently on that three letter word: s-e-x. Some may tire of Minnie’s obsessions and fantasies, and particularly her lingering “love” for the feckless Monroe. Others will appreciate the realism of those obsessions, and recall (perhaps not so fondly) their own sexual awakenings.
But, as Minnie’s life becomes frustratingly claustrophobic, and light, color, and love filter out of her previously sunny existence, the film spirals downward into despair with her and takes shape as a well-earned redemption story.
We are dropped, rather convincingly, thanks to DP Brandon Trost’s woozy imagery, into the beginnings of a teenager’s reckless addiction to drugs, spurred onward by a new and exciting relationship with a woman and the promise of escape that cartoons and sex can’t offer. In the film’s most upsetting and effective use of animation, Minnie, in a stupor, foresees eminent sexual assault and finally forces herself up for air.
All of these experiences feel too much for a 15-year-old. We worry for Minnie and realize that as mature as she thinks she is—and compared to the adults in her life, she’d be right to view herself in that way—there are limits to what she can handle. But never does Diary of a Teenage Girl take the easy route and revel in sex negativity or pandering attitudes toward teens.
Heller does a remarkable job of crafting intimate scenes that place Minnie’s experience first. When she looks achingly and curiously at her naked body in a mirror, it is for her, not for us (or our titillation). And when her sexual escapades distance her from the people she loves, the blame does not fall entirely on the blissfully unaware adults around her. The onus is on Minnie to find her way, and thanks to Powley’s fantastic, nuanced, and emotionally bare performance (and Wiig and Skarsgard’s equally difficult, line-toeing depictions of arrested adulthood) we believe that she can.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is stream of consciousness; it’s discovery; it’s frustration and pissy-ness and vitriol; it’s exaltation; it’s not-quite-accurate recollection; it’s fully and uniquely the property of its owner. And Minnie Getz is one fascinating open-book of an owner.
It is also important that this is the diary of a girl: Heller makes clear in her intent focus and insightful direction the differential level of responsibility placed on young men and women exploring sex. “When we do it,” notes one high school classmate, “you scare me, Minnie.” He is scared, one can assume, because Minnie enjoys it, and maybe even because she’s good at it.
That a 15-year-old girl can go through these circumstances and come out the other end loving herself—when she’s unsure whether others ever will—is remarkable.
And at film’s end, when Minnie intones, “This is for all the girls, when they are grown,” the Diary transforms into a universal treasure: a tome of self-reflection, and a manifesto of self-worth for young women walking their own wobbly paths toward adulthood, wherever they may lead.
Check out the trailer for Diary of a Teenage Girl below, and head to a movie theater ASAP to see it in full!