The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) - Marielle Heller
Based on Phoebe Gloeckner's hybrid novel/graphic novel of the same name, Marielle Heller's debut is a bold, startlingly honest, and frank coming-of-age tale about a young girl, Minnie, discovering and exploring sex in the 1970s.
15-year-old Minnie (Bel Powley) is a precocious, strong, independent, and confident young woman growing up with her bohemian mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), her casual boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). When we meet Minnie she is beginning to discover her awakening sexuality and led perhaps but her mother's behaviour and relaxed attitude to social norms sets her sights on losing her virginity. She decides the capture her journey and adventures in an audio diary, delivered predominantly as voiceover narration throughout the film. An effective and engaging device which draws us into the internal world of Minnie; her motivations, insecurities, ambitions. Her frank and honest confrontation of her sexual awakenings become one of the film most surprising and refreshing elements of the story.
Unexpectedly, on a night out with Monroe, her mother is too busy to go for a drink, her flirtatious advances are reciprocated and the two have sex. Minnie lack of guilt over her seduction and affair with Monroe is offset by her endearing direct and driven desires for sexual exploration and odyssey. She confesses her experiences to close friend Kimmie and the two share elicit stories.
As well as sleeping with Monroe, Minnie also has a few sexual encounters with an attractive school friend, Ricky. Both sex scenes, and all of the scenes between the two are sprinkled with knowing humour as her sexual appetite, direct approach and experience are intimidating and scary to Ricky. As Minnie slips further and further into her sexual voyage, she and Kimmie decide to pose as prostitutes and proposition two guys in a bar, fellating them in the toilets. This becomes serves as a moment of clarity for both girls as they begin to feel and understand the darker side of sexuality. Both regret and feel dirty after the experience. In their exploration, they both, independently appear to realise that this moment is beyond the realms of acceptability. Both notably, this is a line they both define for themselves, and the film makes little attempt to judge or condemn their actions, allowing the characters themselves to determine what is or isn't acceptable. This approach by Heller (who also wrote the screenplay) is one of the film's great strengths and you find yourself, in watching Minne, never judging her decisions.
Equally, and perhaps with a similar adeptness of writing, direction and performance, the adults never come in for unnecessary, simplistic scrutiny. We learn early that Minnie's father left Charlotte, and her stepfather, Pascal, who lives in America appears to have an affectionate if distanced and slightly detached relationship with Minnie. At one point he asks her to move to New York to live with him, but she declines. Pascal seems more worried about Charlotte and her ability to mother and support Minnie than he cares for Minnie herself. It's a testament to the writing that at no point, despite her exploits, do you ever doubt intelligence or capacity to judge and understand the implications of her actions. She may be selfish, but she is surrounded by selfish people, and the film, rather than moralise her decisions, allows her to naturally come to conclusions about curtailing her sexual promiscuity. There are no scenes with parents patronising her about her actions. In truth, she comes across as more mature, emotionally intelligent, and accepting of herself than most of the male characters.
Alongside her audio diary, Minnie is also an aspiring comic book artist and there is a small subplot with her meeting and beginning a burgeoning relationship with cartoonist Aline Kominsky, who is the closest thing Minnie has to a role model in the film. This subplot also introduces a series of beautifully animated sequences in the film, which bring to life the source material as well as providing a quirky insight into Minnie's inner world that is both visual and psychological. One early sequence has her represented as a giant, and after picking up a young man, disregards him out of hand and stamps off to pursue her dreams. This single sequence says everything we need to know about her character.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is an assured, confident debut from writer/director Marielle Heller. It's a refreshing and surprisingly honest depiction of a young girl's sexual coming-of-age which delivers eye-opening frankness in a non-judgemental and non-showy manner and in doing so never over-dramatises the actions of Minnie. Bel Powley is fantastic as Minnie, giving her confidence, charm, and intelligence way beyond her years.