“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” leaps into the debate over how young is too young for sexual activity by pushing the limits of what even the most sexually liberal person would consider acceptable. The opening scene sets the tone: “I had sex today,” Minnie (Bel Powley) announces in the first line of the movie. The thought puts a smile on her young, unadorned face as she walks home through a park.
And then the story unfolds through Minnie’s dictaphone diary and cartoon drawings: Fifteen-year-old Minnie lost her virginity to her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), a man twice her age. They continue to have an affair behind the back of Minnie’s mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig, in one of her least funny roles to date). Monroe’s mind is constantly on keeping the illicit sex a secret; Minnie’s is constantly on doing it again.
The name of the movie suggests an attempt at a universal statement. The story is specific to Minnie, but the idea is that every teenage girl deals with at least the emotions and desires that drive her to sex, drugs, and even a fling with prostitution. Describing the plot makes the movie sound shocking and salacious—and it is—but it is filmed in a way that is non-judgmental, sympathetic, and filtered through Minnie’s narrow perspective.
The movie’s writer/director Marielle Heller has explained that the flirting and sex scenes, which in context the audience will likely find disturbing, are all meant to be from Minnie’s perspective. Because Minnie sees them as romantic, they are filmed that way. That makes them even more difficult to watch.
When she first asks Monroe to sleep with her, Minnie explains in voiceover that she’s afraid this might be her only chance. She wants this opportunity so much that when he seems willing, she grabs it. The movie makes it clear that while Monroe is taking advantage of Minnie’s curiosity and unfulfilled desire, Minnie is not a reluctant participant. The movie never explicitly condemns statutory rape (or any of Minnie’s other experiments), which will trouble some viewers. Monroe’s and Minnie’s bad decisions are treated equally. The movie is set in the 1970s and multiple references to Patty Hearst invite the audience to see a parallel between Patty and Minnie: the idea that it is possible to be both victim and inciter, manipulator and manipulated at the same time.
“When other films—Andrea Arnold’s excellent 2009 feature Fish Tank comes to mind—have dealt with similar relationships, we’re meant to understand the girl as used, motivated by emotional rather than sexual hunger. Minnie, on the other hand, feels pleasure and wants more of it,” writesSlate’s Laura Miller of this movie. “There’s something transgressive about even typing the word ‘lust’ in reference to a 15-year-old. Isn’t ‘She wanted it!’ the habitual excuse of abusers and other skeevy men? It is, but pretending that 15-year-old girls never feel carnal desire, or only feel it toward appropriate partners, does another kind of damage.”
But emotional and physical desire aren’t that easily separated. Minnie’s sexual hunger is driven in large part by her desire to feel loved and wanted. Her mother is not physically affectionate, and Minnie craves touch. Like many teenagers, she is self-aware to a point, wavering between declaring she’s not so stupid as to fall in love with Monroe and wondering if Monroe can love her as much as she wants to be loved.
Later, it gets worse: Minnie provides sexual favors in exchange for money (just for fun), uses cocaine and quaaludes, engages in a threesome with her best friend, tries lesbianism, and is nearly pimped out for drugs. Minnie’s search is clearly fruitless and leads to tragic consequences.
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is based on a semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, which director Heller also turned into a 2010 off-Broadway play. It has a feminist lineage and it wants to be about female empowerment. But it cheats. While Minnie tries and fails to empower herself multiple times throughout the movie, she ends up having to rely for power on men, in particular Monroe, who falls for her. For this reason, Minnie’s clichéd conclusion that “it’s not about being loved by somebody else” falls flat. In an ending that is far more predictable than the rest of the movie, she gets her closure through a final meeting with Monroe and then dances alone before the end credits.
Many critics, as well as Heller, Gloeckner, and Powley have spoken about how the story provides a stark and honest contrast to the classic “coming of age” story that more often depicts the wants and needs of boys. The most honest part of this movie is probably its acknowledgement that when teens—male or female—act in frightening, uncontrollable ways like Minnie does, they are often motivated by a sense of overwhelming emptiness or loneliness they identify as a fear of mediocrity.
While this film deliberately avoids making any statements in the form of moral judgments about the actions of its characters, ultimately it basically makes the statement that it is better to live and learn and survive the consequences than to play it safe. That is reflected in Minnie’s dedication of her own artwork—which is often used to illustrate Minnie’s emotional state throughout the movie—to “all the girls when they have grown.” But Minnie’s survival and the confidence she has gained have the feel of an experiment that can’t (or shouldn’t) be replicated. Far from empowering, her actions and their consequences are the kind that, in the real world, leave scars that can last a lifetime.
Alicia Cohn is a writer in Denver.
Image copyright Sony Pictures Classics. “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is rated R for strong sexual content including dialogue, graphic nudity, drug use, language and drinking—all involving teens.