I saw THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL, directed by Marielle Heller, in New York last March after splitting a bottle of wine with a friend. I’m disclosing this to justify my poor recall, but I wanted to write about DIARY anyway because watching it was a special experience, joyful and weird, substantive and fun. I loved the film immediately and I want to figure out why.
Minnie (Bel Powley) is a fifteen year old who feels much older than that, both to herself and to the viewers. She lives in San Francisco in the 1970s with her younger sister and her mom, Charlotte (Kristin Wiig). Charlotte hosts lots of late night, substance-fueled bohemian gatherings at the family home. She treats her daughters like younger sisters, even sending Minnie to hang out at a bar with her own boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) when Charlotte would rather stay in. Feeling grown up and turned on, Minnie initiates an affair with Monroe that night, which continues for months until Charlotte finds out. Monroe isn’t Minnie’s only sexual conquest during the film; she also sleeps with an age-appropriate high school boy (underwhelming) and hooks up with an older girl (exciting at first, then understandably a little scary when the girl tries to pimp Minnie out to other people).
Despite the fact that it prominently features statutory rape and a girl sleeping with her mother’s boyfriend, DIARY isn’t shocking or upsetting; in fact, it’s really fun. It’s like being a teenager; everything moves so fast and you don’t care because you cannot wait for what comes next. The characters hurt each other without a second thought, speaking carelessly and acting recklessly—everyone chases their own pleasure. DIARY respects its characters and their decisions instead of judging (except for Monroe: he’s depicted as an obviously bad guy). It was exciting for a film to display a young woman’s excitement as she explores her sexuality, and to show how she feels more powerful after the affair, not less. So often when dealing with young women and sex, storytellers end up erring on the side of caution, focusing on danger, pain, and consequence—certainly important aspects of sexual exploration (especially for women, it often seems) but limiting.
Look at JUNO or FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, both great coming-of-age stories whose female characters initially have sexual agency. But Juno is pregnant, saddled with the responsibilities that follow sexual curiosity for women, and projected upon by male characters (I see you, Jason Bateman). Though FAST TIMES allows teenage Stacy to pursue sex with multiple partners, she ends up disappointed, pregnant, and abandoned, and decides to accept the boring reliability of a desexualized boyfriend. Actually, that’s pretty much how JUNO ends, too.
In THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL, on the other hand, Minnie is driven by pleasure-seeking behavior traditionally ascribed to male characters, and while she is disappointed by many of her sexual experiences, there’s no sexual didacticism.
If there is any lesson in DIARY at all, it’s the value of art. Minnie is an ambitious aspiring cartoonist, always drawing and imagining things. When her life feels a little wobbly at the end of the film, she turns to her cartooning for support and inspiration, instead of a desexualized, teenaged boyfriend. Minnie’s creativity works less as a coping mechanism, which suggests that she experiences weakness, and more as a power-booster – she returns to drawing when she needs clarification, power, direction, or inspiration.
All of this—pleasure-seeking, art as a source of power, independence, forward-movement— felt so lovely and energizing as I left the theater last spring. Minnie’s powerful presence in THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL has stayed with me over the past few months, and I’m looking forward to seeing it again at the Brattle.