Here is a film unafraid to portray a teenage girl as sexually curious, even voracious; as someone fascinated and, in her own way, liberated by sex. In other words, here is a film prepared to shoulder its way into the mainstream coming-of-age pantheon of movies about teenage boys and say ‘hey, what about us girls? We have to grow up too, you know.’
Marielle Heller’s debut feature as a director is a triumphant tale of sexual discovery, yes, but also a delicate depiction of the transition from youth to adulthood, from innocence to experience. The Diary of a Teenage Girl – which tells the story of 15-year-old Minnie (Bel Powley), who engages in an affair with her mum’s 35-year-old boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) – reminded me in some ways of Abdellatif Kechiche’s terrific Blue is the Warmest Colour, and I mean that as a huge compliment. That film was driven by an outstanding performance from Adele Exarchopoulos as a young woman transitioning into adulthood, and this film boasts a bewitching, powerfully rich turn from British actress Bel Powley (playing drastically below her age) as a teenager discovering sex, powerful emotions and art for the first time.
The success of Heller’s film is that it allows its subject matter to be both deadly serious and playfully funny. It smartly seeds the character traits we see in its protagonists, but we are never encouraged to think that single events or signifiers have solely defined these characters. Minnie’s burgeoning sexual identity, although it is initially drawn out in a corrupted sort of way by the much older Monroe, is portrayed as life-affirming, because Minnie is a smart young woman determined to understand just what on Earth this ‘growing up’ business is all about. She records her feelings out loud in audio logs (the diary of the title), and expresses herself by drawing her fantasies and inner thoughts as cartoons and sketches, some of which come to life in the form of brief animations that segue into and out of the live action. The film portrays the journey of an adolescent mind through Powley’s performance and through its visuals, which is a smart move that gives the film (alongside its well-realised 70s setting) an identity of its own.
At no point does the film forget that what is happening between Minnie and Monroe is fundamentally wrong, but nor does it make any excuses for it. In fact the un-histrionic way Heller deals with this relationship is one of the film’s strengths. It’s also helped by the fact that Bel Powley is so good at portraying on the one hand a mature, smart girl who is keen to explore her sexuality, but on the other an indisputably young and emotionally undeveloped person who, despite her precociousness, is simply not fully ready to experience the things headed her way. Alexander Skarsgård has a tough job on his hands here playing a character who is simultaneously charming and pitiable, a cowboy and a creep. Their relationship is convincing, eerily so at times, but their emotional engagement, particularly in the lovemaking scenes, always carries a profound sense of the out of place, often of the genuinely harrowing. It is to both actors’ credit that they convince as a couple that should never be, and which we as an audience are always torn between wanting to watch and wanting to look away from.
There’s also an excellent supporting cast to enjoy, including Kristen Wiig as Minnie’s mother, who has her own issues behind the scenes, Abigail Wait as Minnie’s adorable sister Gretel, and, in a short cameo, Christopher Meloni as their mother’s ex. Heller allows these characters to breathe just enough that they play important roles but do not intrude on what is fundamentally Minnie’s story, while Nate Heller’s soundtrack coats the whole thing in nostalgia and charm.
If one wanted to be picky, it could be argued that there are times when the script states things a little too obviously, with a whiff of cliché, but it would more apt to champion what is good about the script, which is pretty much everything else. Although some of the film’s content dictates that much of its target audience may not immediately be able to see it (it is rated 18 in the UK), The Diary of a Teenage Girl is surely destined to become a tentpole coming-of-age movie and, I imagine, a significant vehicle for the careers of everyone involved.