Teenage sexuality is an awkward, unavoidable minefield that encompasses so much more than the issue of virginity. While most teen dramas end at the decision to lose one’s virginity, The Diary of a Teenage Girl realizes that this is only the beginning.
Set in the 1970s, The Diary of a Teenage Girl takes a brutally honest look at the sexual awakening of 15-year-old Minne Goetze (Bel Powley) as she navigates the familiar hurdles of sexuality and self-love while engaging in an inappropriate relationship with a much older man. Director/screenwriter Marielle Heller throws you right into the grips of a moral crisis with the first shot of the film, which unapologetically focuses on Minnie’s ass as she proudly struts through a park and her voice-over announces, “I had sex today.”
Bel Powley turns in a brilliant performance as Minnie Goetze, a somewhat awkward aspiring artist who is craving to be loved, appreciated and viewed as a competent sexual being. The movie is shown from Minnie’s perspective as she recounts her sexual escapades and innermost thoughts on a cassette player in lieu of a traditional diary (a decision that is much more visually interesting than watching her tediously scribble away in a journal). By placing Minnie as the narrator of the story, we are given the ability to see her as a sexual being without sexualizing her – a rarity for films in this genre.
At the start of the movie, Minnie takes you through the lead up to her first sexual encounter with her mother’s 35-year-old boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) – an act that she seems to view as a testament to the power of her own sexuality rather than his predatory nature. Where most would see a sexual advance from someone 20 years their senior as a major red flag, her mother’s laissez faire attitude towards parenting and her own relationship with Monroe provide the perfect breeding ground for Minnie’s unstable boundaries. Minnie and her sister are subjected to their mother’s wild parties, afternoon drinking and casual use of cocaine as if there is nothing wrong with the behavior. (Again, it was the 1970s, so her mom’s party lifestyle isn’t as unusual as it would be today.) When her mother isn’t in the mood to go out with Monroe, she offers Minnie as an acceptable substitute in her place, which plants the seed for their affair.
Throughout the film, Minnie treats her relationship with Monroe as a legitimate romantic endeavor, unable to see his overt manipulation and abuse of their age difference. She tries to get him to open up emotionally, blames herself for any problems within their “relationship” and grapples with the reality of his affection for another woman. When she wants to get his attention, she flaunts a hickey she receives from a classmate. Minnie’s reaction to the entire situation is exactly what you would expect of a 15-year-old girl. But the reality of the relationship forces you to confront the brutal reality of her sexuality – that is, it is okay for her to be sexual, but not for her to be sexualized.
It’s an incredibly complicated story that is made possible by the three-dimensional realization of the characters. Bel Powley manages to take Minnie out of the Lolita realm, becoming neither a virgin or a whore, but rather just a teenage girl who now has to realize that sexuality is a part of her identity. While it doesn’t sound as glamorous as a stereotyped label, Powley’s complex portrayal of Minnie provides an uncomfortable glimpse of female sexuality that is severely lacking in film right now. Alexander Skarsgård manages to make a predatory character (with a 1976 predatory mustache, no less) well-rounded and sympathetic. His inability to successfully transition into adulthood explains his emotional attachment to Minnie, and as much as you want him to be the villain, Skarsgard’s performance doesn’t allow you to. Kristen Wiig is incredible as Charlotte, Minnie’s free-spirit mother who seems unable to bear the burden of parenting. Walking the line between trying to have the most fun possible while doing whatever she believes to be best for her daughter, Wiig manages to humanize the woman who has provided such an unsafe environment for Minnie’s exploits. Christopher Meloni, though only in the movie for three scenes as Minnie’s stepfather, commands every second of screen time with power and humor.
While the specifics of Minnie’s sexual exploits may not be universally relatable, the ways in which she reacts and responds to them are sure to resonate with most women. Having sex with your mother’s boyfriend, playing prostitute in the bathroom of a bar and engaging in a threesome with your best friend are, admittedly, unique and extreme experiences. But doing something (or someone) against your better judgment because you are seeking approval and love is a fairly universal, and tragic, experience for many adolescent girls. Trying on adulthood and sexuality and testing your own limits is a part of growing up, and most of us learn from those wild indiscretions. Forcing yourself to extend your sexual boundaries beyond your comfort zone in the hopes of endearing a lover to you is one of the easiest ways people lose themselves through their sexual partners.
My only real issue with the movie is that it is rated R, thus preventing most girls Minnie’s age from actually seeing the film. While I can understand the desire to limit viewership due to the graphic depictions of sex and drug use, it seems a huge disservice considering the themes of the movie. At 25-years-old, the film is mostly nostalgic for me, as I came out of it feeling happy that those difficult times were done with and I had made it out safe. While it is still a great movie, the purpose of its themes would be better served to girls who are actively experiencing the same situations.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl manages to take the issue of teenage sexuality and turn it into so much more than a race to lose one’s virginity. It’s an uncomfortable, brutally honest look at the entirety of Minnie’s sexual identity as she is actively forming it. And it allows her to tell you for herself.
Written by Molly Regan. Regan is an improviser and writer in Baltimore. She likes chicken pot pie, Adam Scott’s butt and riot grrl.