‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’ is a Challenging Look at Female Adolescent Sexuality (FILM REVIEW)

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Despite its saccharine sounding name, Diary of a Teenage Girl is a film that will challenge audiences with its no holds barred depiction of teenage lust and infatuation. I imagine that reactions will be mixed pretty evenly into two camps: Those who are compelled by the unflinching look inside the mind of a fifteen year old girl at the apex of her foolish love, and those who are repulsed by a relatively consequence free depiction of repeated statutory rape. There’s not a whole lot of middle ground to work with for the movie, and I don’t have much by way of guidance for you in deciding if this is the film for you. What I can say is that I enjoyed it, but that it took a lot of conscious effort on my part to reach that conclusion.

“I had sex today. Holy shit,” begins the opening narration, as the titular teenage girl Minnie (Bel Powley) begins her titular diary. Set against the backdrop of late-70’s San Francisco hippie/bohemian culture, we slowly learn that the man in question is not only older (35) but also her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) lay about boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), with whom Minnie has developed an infatuation that either is or is not actual love. We watch as Minnie undergoes her sexual awakening while trying to balance the normalcy of her young existence—school, friends, comic books, other boys—with keeping quiet about her forbidden exploits with Monroe.

It’s an uncomfortable premise made even more so by the film’s lighthearted take on such serious matters. Difficult as it is to rectify the conflict between the emotions of the audience—disgust and  repulsion at the thought of a 15 year old girl in repeated sexual congress with a man over twice her age—with the emotions of Minnie, who walks on air as a woman in love. As much as we, the audience, get that there are complexities that Minnie is too inexperienced to fully appreciate or understand, Minnie herself is overjoyed by her relationship, despite its taboo nature.

This is the genius of the script from Marielle Heller, who also serves as director and adapted the work from a groundbreaking novel/graphic novel hybrid of the same name by Phoebe Gloeckner. There are no attempts to moralize, shame, or judge Minnie found within the film itself and any attempts to do so comes from the mind of the watcher. This is Minnie’s story and it’s told from Minnie’s perspective, so while the audience might reel at scenes of a 15 year old being bent over a bed by a 35 year old, from Minnie’s eyes we’re watching something beautiful. We don’t have to like that—we shouldn’t like that—but it’s her story to tell, and she call tell it as she wants.

At no point does Diary of a Teenage Girl feel exploitative. This is not a movie about sex for sex’s sake, it’s a movie about growing up, presented through the prism of sex. While her choice in partner may be repugnant (and you really can’t help hating Monroe, despite Minnie’s clear adoration) and you may pity her naiveté, it’s still a powerful and thought-provoking coming of age dramedy that holds nothing back in its look at burgeoning sexuality. Powley gives a standout, star-making performance that’s utterly fearless in its intensity and full of wonderful nuance. Skarsgard is repulsive as Monroe, which I mean here as a complement to the actor’s abilities—Monroe is not an easy character to portray, and Skarsgard brings him to life with honesty. Watching their relationship form and grow is not easy by any means, but the interplay between the two actors is hard to turn away from despite how repulsive it actually is.

As much praise is due for the entire cast, Heller manages to keep the whole thing together and presents the story in the most honest of possible ways without taking advantage of the content. This is the first film written and directed by Heller, who’s made a name for herself as an actress over the last decade. Really, she belongs in the director’s chair as her eye for detail and presentation is exquisite. She gives homage both to the story’s comic book genesis and to Minnie’s desire to be a cartoonist with scenes that are interspersed with animated imaginings—all of which add depth to the world inside of Minnie’s head. This is an artistic choice that could easily become hackneyed and distracting, but under Heller’s deft hand, it becomes revelatory. It’s difficult to believe that a movie with this level of power could come from a first-timer, and it bodes well for her career, which is now one I will be following with great interest.

To call it bold would be to scratch the surface. Diary of a Teenage Girl is raw, emotional, challenging, devastating, and difficult. It’s not a movie everyone can be comfortable seeing, and no one would blame you for running as far away as you could if it’s not up your alley. I myself had a hard time rectifying my morality with what I was seeing on the screen, but that’s sort of the point. The best approach to viewing the film is with as little judgment as possible. After all, it’s not really our place to judge, no matter how much we are disgusted. We can, however, pity Minnie’s foolishness without shaming her. This is a movie about the rippling effects of bad decisions, after all, and how Minnie grows because of them. Rare is the film that manages to capture the tumultuous waves of a young girl’s sexuality, but Diary of a Teenage Girl does so, and does it beautifully.

Diary of a Teenage Girl is in theaters now.

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