Published Aug 13, 2015That Marielle Heller's feature directorial debut, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, an adaptation of the Phoebe Gloeckner animated novel, The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures, is considered so ground-breaking and daring should be seen as a bit of a problem; it's a telling reminder that unflinchingly realistic narratives told from the perspective of young women are all too rare in the film world. It's a rather conventional coming-of-age story in structure, detailing the emotional turbulence and confusion of a teenager coping with the intrigue and harshness of an adult world. And the integration of crude animation as a mode of visually expressing the internal psychology of its protagonist is reminiscent of the The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys.
What's considered vanguard here is the uncensored and emotionally raw exploration of female sexuality presented. Minnie (Bel Powley), an aspiring 15-year-old artist in 1970s San Francisco, dictates a series of candid reflections to her recorded diary about bodily shame, sexual desires, perspectives on the loss of virginity and nascent perceptions about love. Most notably, she describes the sexual encounters she has with Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), her mother's (Kristen Wiig) free-spirited, loser boyfriend.
While the basic format lends itself to a litany of comparisons (Daydream Nation, American Beauty or even Lolita), Heller's candid teen drama is very pointedly told from Minnie's perspective, removing the usual victimization and categorization ("Is she a virgin or a whore?") associated with movies about women filtered through a male gaze. If it's similar to any existing cinematic text, it would be Susan Skoog's little-seen 1998 indie, Whatever.
Heightening this sense of intimacy is Heller's decision to juxtapose Minnie's decidedly innocent interpretation of adult sexuality (the female competition with her mother that she internalizes is so deluded that it's heartbreaking) with a very blunt depiction of the realities surrounding her: the sex is explicit and unflattering; Minnie's mother is a well-intentioned alcoholic; and the marginalized teen landscape surrounding our protagonist is consistently on the verge of destruction. Smartly, Heller distinguishes between Minnie's self-involvement and the reality surrounding her by letting us hear her classmates call her a "slut," even though she never really interprets the words or understands where it's coming from.
This tonal balance, mixed with Powley's sharply rendered, wide-eyed performance is ultimately what makes The Diary of a Teenage Girl such an effective film. It's so deeply human and embarrassing that it's impossible not to cringe when Minnie makes terrible decisions or is emotionally abused by the insecure men surrounding her. If there is a flaw to the style and execution of this simultaneously tender and troubling teen odyssey, it's simply that the story meanders and repeats itself too much during the home stretch, reiterating the damaging nature of Minnie and Monroe's affair to a point of near redundancy.
Still, it's important that Heller's rather accomplished, if a bit ragged, debut finds an audience. Honest depictions of male sexuality and male desires are commonplace — there are dozens of coming-of-age dramas and, more often, comedies made every year with teenagers making bets about losing their virginity or detailing their intimate masturbatory fantasies — but when it's a girl making this transition, they're typically muted and idealized. Sure, they might be curious about sex, but their urges and the unglamorous thoughts surrounding it tend to be left off screen. They're also rarely allowed to enjoy the sex, and if they do, they're often punished for doing so.
As such, There's a desperate need for voices such as is this within our cultural lexicon; voices that aren't loud, somewhat undiscerning, straight white men. No, Diary isn't perfect, but it is a sincere and affecting work with uniformly impressive performances and a detailed depiction of the less flattering aspects of sexual exploration, which, amongst other things, helps people know that they aren't alone.