Note: This review was originally published back in January 2015 as part of our coverage for the Sundance Film Festival.
“I had sex today. Holy shit.”
As Minnie (Bel Powley) wanders through the park near her house in ‘70s San Francisco, suddenly the whole world looks different. For a young woman of only 15, one who spends far too much time examining herself in a mirror, considering at length how ugly she is, this is a major life milestone. She had sex! The swirling torrent of excitement and confusion and a power that she can recognize but doesn’t yet fully understand threatens to swallow her up, but what wins out is a single idea: she had sex today.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl unfolds over the course of a few months in Minnie’s life, after this first sexual encounter and through a great many others, as she negotiates the perils of her sexual awakening, her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) free-spirited and very open substance abuse, and her boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). Oh, yeah. Monroe’s the one who took Minnie’s virginity. And it’s only the beginning of their tumultuous tryst, despite the facts that a) Monroe is a layabout and a total screwup, and b) once again, Minnie is 15. While the film is refreshingly frank about the realities of teenage sexuality, it’s more than a little disquieting watching her early euphoria at being so desired by an older, more handsome man slowly erode into the realization that something’s happening which probably shouldn’t be.
But the film isn’t about Monroe, or about moralizing the situation (though it’s clear that this isn’t right in the slightest). It’s about Minnie coming into herself as a woman, reveling in the new benefits of adulthood while still struggling to develop the emotional wherewithal to handle what comes with them. She and her best friend Kimmie (Madeleine Waters) enjoy the newfound attention even as their reputations begin to sour, but they hardly care. It doesn’t matter to either if some stranger considers them slutty; they’re having fun, and that’s what matters to them. Under writer-director Marielle Heller (adapting Phoebe Gloekner’s semi-autobiographical novel), Diary avoids simplistic moralizations or value judgments, instead allowing Minnie to simply live life as she wishes. That’s not to say that it’s without consequence, as few hedonistic lifestyles are in the long run, but the film simply observes her as she goes through her paces.
The film takes on her perspective in every way, from the way in which Monroe and her other paramours fade in and out of her life as needed or wanted to the animated flourishes, which fit perfectly with Minnie’s dream of being a cartoonist. Her work is heavily within the alternative realm that was finding its sea legs at the time; her biggest influence is Aline Kominsky, whose exaggerated drawings of curvy women made her even more famous than her romantic involvement with R. Crumb. Minnie channels her sexual frustrations into her art; bizarre arrangements of labial flowers and lovingly rendered erections collide against imagery related to Monroe, imagery he panics at due to its sensitive nature. It doesn’t help that the titular diary comes in the form of a series of cassette tape recordings she makes, documenting her inner musings, primal cries like “I want a body pressed up against me, so that I know I’m really here” that suggest more about Minnie than even she realizes.
What holds the often difficult film together, aside from Heller’s assured direction, is Powley’s breakout performance. She moves from powerful to uncertain to meek, the latter only when she’s forced to do so. Minnie takes to the role of womanhood with gusto, but when her mother blows rails in front of her in the late hours of the evening, or Monroe subtly threatens her to keep her silence about their trysts, or she eventually starts dabbling in hard drugs herself as a means of coping with a life rapidly spiraling out of her control, it’s all too clear how much she still has left to learn. The film, for its part, steps back and documents Minnie’s life as it is, in all its messiness and excitement and recklessness. It’s then left to Powley to balance Minnie’s endless facets, and she does so with a kind of resolve that’s going to linger in audiences’ minds.
The film is very much immersed in the counterculture of the time, from the Stooges poster on Minnie’s wall to the cavalier attitude held toward substance use and sex in general. (When Minnie starts expressing an interest in women as well, the film makes no big deal about it in the slightest. It’s just another thing that happens sometimes, after all.) There are highs and lows, orgasms aplenty and emotional breakdowns, but The Diary of a Teenage Girl uses its subject to examine the uncertainty of adolescence with a truly striking candor and realism. It’s never all bad or all good. It’s usually somewhere between the two, and in that shaky place Minnie thrives, and evolves, endlessly changing with the newness of burgeoning adulthood.
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