Movies love a sexual adventurer. Filmmakers know you love to watch, but historically they often punish the promiscuous. Especially if the sexual adventurer is a young woman. Lessons of proper sexual control have to be learned or you’ll end beaten and left for dead in an alley (just see last year’s Nymphomaniac, a movie given two parts, one for the sex, and the second for the punishment for all the sex) or unable to be loved. Frank depictions of the burning desire to fornicate without a big narrative comeuppance are rarer. And when they’re done well, it’s a rare gem that shines even brighter.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a rare gem because it strips the male gaze and sees Minnie’s (Bel Powley) sexuality as her beginning link to deeper self discovery. Her self discovery is not just when she shares her body with a partner, but when she stands in front of a mirror and looks at herself—not to find angles that might be most pleasing for a lover’s eye, but to study her actual shape. Her shape informs her artwork, her artwork causes her to reach out to a female comic-creator (Aline Kominsky) in attempt to find another woman who might feel similar to her—because she draws similar to her. Minnie desperately wants to share experiences, as she records her diary with audio entries believing that someone other than herself will eventually listen. And having sex isn’t a cry for help or attention, it makes Minnie feel more connected to her own self.
It’s 1970’s San Francisco. And although the film is littered with the style of the time—sheep-fleeced coats, bell bottom pants, the haze of endless cigarettes intertwined with fading incense—debut writer-director Marielle Heller (working from the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner) rightfully makes teenaged Minnie’s room the most important space. When she talks to her tape recorder she is surrounded by burning oranges, earthy browns, an Iggy Pop poster above her bed—when you lick Pop’s poster crotch, you can almost feel his dick, says Minnie’s friend, and fellow sexual adventurer, Kimmie (Madeleine Waters)—but most importantly, the wall holds many self-portraits. Like many teenagers, Minnie’s room is an expression of interests, and though Iggy Pop gets prime placement, what Minnie is most interested in is discovering how sex has changed herself. Her body, her relationships. Her room is her place to reflect on that through drawing, mirror-gazing, and recording her reflections.
The opening line of the film, and of her recorded diary, is “I had sex today. Holy shit.” Enough tease in this review, right? Who is she sleeping with? That’d be the 35-year-old boyfriend of her mother, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). Monroe is more of a dimwit than a predator, and Skarsgard, Powley, and Heller beautifully walk the tightrope that keeps Diary from being a victim (or even moral) tale. Minnie’s pursuit of Monroe, and Monroe’s inability to resist the pursuit expose them both as clueless lighting rods of impulse. Skarsgard finds the perfect balance for Monroe, a little bit of a creep, a little bit of a dummy, but with a dash of charisma and a too-late awareness of all his fuck-ups. Monroe might’ve even been a great adult ally for Minnie if they hadn’t met in the cavern of impulse that is Minnie’s home.
Minnie’s mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) is the hostess of many after-hour after parties. The living room is full of adults escaping adulthood through cocaine, booze, dancing, and flopping onto velvet couches to crash for the night. In these parties, Minnie is often a prop, the cute reminder of the youth the revelers are still attempting to possess. She is pulled into the room to dance. But again, this isn’t a moral tale. This is simply Minnie’s environment. She desperately wants to be an adult—and in misguided ways, sure—she’s treated as one. As such, her betrayal of her mother is treated as an adult affair. It occurs at his house and in cars.
There are moments of tenderness between Minnie and Monroe. Such as a phone call—not to come over for sex—but to tell her something funny that happened that day (talking his way out of a drunk driving arrest). In the non-sexual moments, Monroe is lucidly aware that Minnie isn’t an adult, and won’t judge him as an adult. In fact, she might see him as cool. But he isn’t trying to parlay that into something illicit. He’s telling it because she can validate that he’s cool, when an adult, even a partier like Charlotte, cannot.
Monroe isn’t the only male that Minnie is sleeping with. She’s also training a boy at school how to remove piston-pumping from his playbook, and allow her to take control of the motions. But her relationship with Monroe is the only one where she doesn’t have equal power. He has the power to say, “no” and she is powerless because she is consistently the initiator. As she tries to find herself this relationship, which started her womanly introspection, is the thing that’s actually keeping her from being able to fully stand on a firm ground of sexual identity. Her sexual identity isn’t a secret, or shameful, but her relationship is.
It’s appropriate that this non-traditional “diary” is shown as recorded tapes in a box. The box is unkempt, and the tapes move around and aren’t in specific order. The jumbling is similar to Minnie’s feelings, but it also informs Diary‘s direction. Some of the artistic asides feel occasionally out of place in the narrative, but they make sense in Minnie’s attempt at self-discovery. Whenever she begins to doubt her quest to be loved she views herself as a towering sex monster and her cartoonish view of herself comes to life. Minnie’s own identity—and the film itself—is realized when that seesaw of sexual freedom and sexual monsterism is stabilized and intertwined as being a-okay and not freakish.
Oh, and it’s funny, too. It has to be. Just like Minnie is unpunished for exploring her sexuality, the audience goes unpunished for joining her.