Coming-of-age stories with a female protagonist tend to either focus on a “first love” story, or an expression of sexuality where disaster ensues. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a rare example that diverges from both of these paths, instead focusing on a girl exploring her sexuality with all the curiosity and relative lack of disaster that films tend to focus on boys. It’s a refreshing, and unfortunately rare, look at a girl exploring her sexuality and herself. Her choices aren’t always wise, and sometimes completely inappropriate, but under the guidance of first-time writer/director Marielle Heller, it allows for a film that’s complex.
The film opens with Minnie (Bel Powley) walking through a park in mid-1970s San Francisco with a smile beaming on her face. Her first words, via voiceover: “I had sex today. Holy shit!” The film quickly rewinds a bit to show Minnie’s home life, where her mother (Kristen Wiig) raises Minnie and her younger sister while partying and engaging in a casual relationship with Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). Minnie, increasingly aware of the sexuality that’s around her, wants to give it a shot, and she goads Monroe into taking her virginity. After a brief bout of protestation, he complies.
Yes, Minnie, all of 15 years old, has sex with her mother’s 30-something boyfriend. It’s worth noting now that the film doesn’t endorse Monroe’s actions, though it does allow for the affair to continue far past that first encounter. Yes, Monroe’s behavior is gross. By keeping the film firmly in the perspective of its protagonist, though, Monroe seems less sketchy and more sweet and childlike. That’s partially due to Skarsgård’s performance, as well, but it also helps show why Minnie would pursue him in the first place.
While sex is the driving force of Minnie’s thoughts for most of the film, her exploration does go beyond her affair with Monroe. Thanks in part some well-done cinematography, the film captures the essence of 1970s San Francisco without clinging to the period. It helps capture the sexually-charged atmosphere of the time, which is also helped by the occasional use of animation. One of Minnie’s obsessions involves the artwork of Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and at times, Minnie’s dreams come to life as a Crumb comic. It’s a nice touch that helps underscore Minnie’s youth and occasional naïveté.
Getting past the taboo nature of Minnie’s first sexual partner, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a well-presented story that is sad mainly in how its depiction of young female sexuality is considered taboo. Whether or not it’s appropriate, Hollywood has featured plenty of stories placing a male in a similar situation, where the boy comes out fine. It’s about time that a female can lead this type of film without being condemned.