Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl is astonishing in its audacity. It gives agency to its 15-year-old female protagonist Minnie (Bel Powley) when she has an affair with a man who’s 20 years her senior and also her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), and then it dares you to contemplate her level of victimhood. It portrays the sex between Minnie and Monroe as enjoyable and hot. It finds humor in a fucked-up situation that might be portrayed as a tragedy in a less compassionate movie: One of the times Monroe announces he has to stop fucking her, Minnie gasps in offense, “Why would you say that? Do you think I’m fat?”
Powley is a true marvel in a role that is the definition of “breakout.” Her saucer eyes look almost big enough to take in the new world that is unfurling in front of her, and her deadpan delivery is perfectly calibrated to convey the hilarity of situations that Minnie thrusts herself into—after posing as hookers with her friend Kimmie (Madeleine Waters) and then actually prostituting themselves by giving simultaneous $5 blowjobs in a dive bar men’s room, we cut to Minnie in bed murmuring, “I don’t think we should have done that.”
Minnie dictates journal entries on her tape recorder (Diary is set in 1976), and in doing so exposes her aspirations and insecurities (“I’m not really attractive at all”; “I feel so ashamed and ugly and naïve and lonely”; “And now, the making of a harlot...”). These insecurities come, by the way, as Minnie is slowly becoming aware of the power that comes with sexual maturity. She can’t yet quite harness it, as pointed out by her mom (Kristen Wiig), who snorts coke in front of her daughters, gets blackout drunk and encourages Minnie to show off her body whenever possible. The movie’s true tension comes from Minnie’s relationship to that potential power.
Minnie’s interior life is further illustrated in animated sequences based on her diaristic portraits and comics. This multimedia approach reflects the hybrid nature of Diary’s source material, Phoebe Gloeckner’s beloved diary-graphic novel hybrid of the same name from 2002. I (shamefully) haven’t read that book, so I can’t accurately say how well Gloeckner’s vision (and life, on which her book was partly based) is portrayed in Heller’s directorial debut, but I can say that Diary of a Teenage Girl is an extraordinary coming of age story by any standard and so masterfully executed. It reminded me of a lot of things—the kind of old polaroids that Instagram filters mimic (its colors are muted to the point of being pastel), The Ice Storm (Wiig’s character would have been the swingingest addition to any key party), The Virgin Suicides, and mostly, Ghost World. I’m reminded of what Roger Ebert said about that last movie, one of my favorite things anyone has ever written about any movie, and it certainly applies here: “I wanted to hug this movie.”
In the interview included in the movie’s press notes, Heller makes it clear that she had an agenda when it came to telling this kind of story from a female character’s perspective:
What if you’re a teenage girl who wants to have sex? If you are, there’s still this thing, of feeling like a freak because everything you’ve ever read or seen tells you you shouldn’t want it. Only boys want it. And that’s not true. Boys are given so many examples of films that say whatever they feel sexually is normal, even if it’s defacing a pie. And girls are just basically relegated to this one little area—you have this virginity to protect and boys are going to try and take it away from you.
She claims no such agenda when it comes to casting judgement Minnie’s behavior, though:
I tried to stay away from this story ever being a lesson. It’s not a morality story. It’s just a depiction of what it feels like to be a teenage girl. We always look at our teenage girls’ stories to have major moral lessons and to be some kind of puritanical morality tale. This is not meant to be that at all. This is a rebellion against that.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl may not be a morality story, but it is deeply moral in the most uplifting way—ultimately, its resolution hinges not on making Monroe pay for his abuse of Minnie, but on ensuring that she is OK with what happened, the world, and herself.
“This is for all the girls when they have grown,” is how Minnie concludes her story. If only all movies cared so deeply about their characters and the rest of the world.