This is what happened. In 2002, The Diary of a Teenage Girl was published as a graphic novel by writer/artist Phoebe Gloeckner. Eight years later, after receiving the book as a Christmas gift, writer Marielle Heller adapted it into a play and played the lead. It was critically acclaimed. Five years after that, the film is released, adapted and directed by Heller, now with Britain’s Bel Powley in the lead, and its frankness is astonishing.
“I had sex today,” declares fifteen year-old Minnie Goetze (Powley with faultless American accent) in a voice-over. That’s the first thing we hear, and Minnie is thrilled.
It’s the mid-seventies in San Francisco when phones were rotary, the radio was playing Heart’s Dreamboat Annie and Mott the Hoople’s Roll Away The Stone, and television sets looked more like brown lumps of wooden furniture sitting on the carpet broadcasting fuzzy colored images of Patty Hearst on the news holding a gun. High-schooler Minnie is keeping an audio diary documenting her thoughts and feelings. “If you’re listening to this without my permission, please stop,” she dictates into her cassette player, then adds with a hint of regret as if knowing in advance what damage her recordings might cause, “Please… stop.”
It began when Minnie’s single-parent mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig successfully and surprisingly playing against type) is too busy to go out with her boyfriend, Monroe (Sweden’s Alexander Skarsgard). She suggests Minnie go with him, just to keep him company. They flirt at a bar resulting with Monroe telling Minnie, “You just gave me a hard-on.” Young Minnie, of course, is elated, and against everyone’s better judgment, they have sex. Later, when Minnie relaxes in a bathtub, she asks herself, “Is this what it feels like to love somebody?” And when making her next entry onto her audio diary, she states, “I think this officially makes me an adult, right?”
It’s clear that Minnie is clueless when it comes to the difference between falling in love and having sex with men twice her age. From her diary entries and the way she confides with a girlfriend regarding what she’s done and how she feels about it, emotionally sex is the equivalent of finding love while physically it’s simply the extension of a hug and a kiss, and she’s fascinated by it. Knowing what we know regarding Minnie’s home life and the absence of responsible guidance – as we discover, her mother is just as immature – there’s little wonder Minnie translates her new found longings and desires into a diary and misinterprets them in the way she does.
Despite the subject and the aggressive, precocious nature of its protagonist there is plenty of nudity but little sexual graphic display to warrant anything stronger than an ‘R.’ The film has run into controversy in Powley’s Britain where those who may benefit the most from learning of Minnie’s misguided attempt of maturity are restricted from seeing it. The Brit rating is close to the American NC-17. And that’s a shame. In an industry that delivers an endless array of moronic comedies depicting horny boys trying to lose their virginity or claiming another conquest with a drunken girl at a party, it’s odd that a film tackling the subject with ruthless honesty but from a girl’s point of view would be denied to those who should see it. Compare the poster to the one used to promote 2012’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It’s the same, intended for the same young adult audience.
It would be pointless for me to declare that this is an accurate portrayal of how young coming-of-age teenage girls think and feel. Seriously, how would I know? But talking to others after the screening it’s clear that even though not every teenage girl is a Minnie, the honesty of her declarations are exact. Minnie occasionally questions where she stands and why she loves having sex as much as she does, but adds, “I don’t want it to stop. I want to get laid right now.”
Like author Gloeckner who used drawings as well as prose in her novel, Minnie has a talent for note-book doodles and illustrations, many of which we see decorate the screen and come alive, resembling an animated style caught somewhere between Ralph Bakshi and Robert Crumb. It’s like witnessing an explosion of graffiti painted on the walls inside of a young girl’s head.
Director Heller creates a keen sense of the seventies without overdoing period references, but it’s the strength of the three leads – Wiig, Skarsgaard and particularly Bel Powley who convinces as a fifteen year-old but was actually twenty-two when filming – that impress the most. Depending on personal taste and your own level of acceptance, The Diary of a Teenage Girl may shock, but there’s something honest, even refreshing, when listening to Minnie discuss her love of sex and her desire to experience more and as much as possible. It’s an undeniably bold film.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 102 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)