As it turned out, I went to see The Diary of a Teenage Girl with two guys. On the occasion, I settled into the luscious red seating of Oxford’s Phoenix Picturehouse, a guy at each elbow, and dealt out the wine glasses. This was a film I really wanted to see, but I had heard that wine might be called for during certain scenes. The lights dimmed in that demure way and I poured the wine amply. We leaned back...an hour and forty minutes later, the credits rolled and I found myself the elated host to an unshakable grin. Glass half full, I looked around hoping to high five someone. So what did you guys think?? One companion stated that the film was simply a good coming-of-age story. I glugged my wine thoughtfully, smugly even, because while that was true, I knew it was also something much more. It was a little bit of a revolution.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is Marielle Heller’s directorial debut and an adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s similarly named graphic novel. It’s also the brilliant breakthrough performance of the British actress Bel Powley and the screen-birth of a definitively new type of character by the name of Minnie Goetze. Let’s get the circumstances out of the way: Minnie is a fifteen-year-old aspiring cartoonist living with her mom and sister in drug-happy seventies San Francisco. She has sex [many times, she counts them] with her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) thirty-five-year-old boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). It’s a scenario everyone is prepared to see slip down a gritty, pitch-black alley full of predator and prey. Instead, Heller shamelessly hurls the narrative into full on sepia-tinted daylight, navigated by the hilarious and absolutely real Minnie. Of all the teen-centric movies I have ever laughed or gasped at, this one takes the cake, bakes in the full range of exhilarating and crushing teenage emotions, and proceeds to savor each bite.
At no point is the focus trained on Monroe having done the wrong thing—of course it’s wrong. This movie is about Minnie figuring out the right things. That is where the revolution lies. Confused impressionable teenager and all, Minnie possesses the agency to truly enjoy her newfound sex life, and the intelligence to unbundle her sense of self from raucous hormones and that thirty-five-year-old mistake. Accompanied by the on-screen manifestations of her own increasingly beautiful cartoons, Minnie’s teenage exploration is without silver screen rival. In one scene, her mother tells her, “You have a kind of power you know, you just…don't know it yet.” This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, this power is the sexual pull Minnie exudes to Monroe and other men, and she knows it. On the other, she really doesn’t yet know the power of self-determination that she will later exercise. All of this is especially brazen because she is a girl, and movies across the spectrum are hard-pressed to give girls this kind of terrifying opportunity. Instead, budding female sexuality and desire is often treated as vague or disgraceful, if it’s considered at all.
As a former teenager who kept a doodle-bordered diary, I can attest to my own wish to have had this movie earlier in my life. It would have been an exciting and unabashed alternative to constrictive societal norms. I suspect this applies not just to girls. Teenage boys, commonly shown as ravenous little humpers stumped by the mysterious essence of femaliens, deserve this cinematic glimpse of possibility. The only real controversy surrounding The Diary of a Teenage Girl is that the antiquated British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) has deemed it inaccessible precisely to the tender age bracket it would best serve.
Nevertheless, Minnie Goetze now stands as the modern day Everyteen. Future filmmakers dabbling in the ever-alluring topic of teenage discovery will have to reckon with her character. She has exposed adolescence for what it can be and the kind of excellent movie it can shoulder.