Seventies-set, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a witty, honest exploration of a teenaged girl’s nascent sexuality. Director Marielle Heller manages to depict this sexual odyssey without seeming exploitative, offering a refreshing corrective to the way feminine adolescent desires are typically treated by filmmakers: either with prurience, or overlooked entirely.
Review by Katrina Conaglen at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Bright British newcomer Bel Powley (A Royal Night Out) is captivating as Minnie, a 15-year-old San Francisco artist with a strong sexual curiosity. “I wonder if every else thinks about sex as much as I do,” she muses into her tape recorder diary, in the first of a series of frank and poignant entries charting her sexual education.
She finds surprisingly ready tutelage offered by her mother’s easy going boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), 20 years her senior. He deflowers her offering a rather disingenuous “oh. I didn’t know you were a virgin” after the fact.
They leap into an enthusiastic affair, though Minnie’s rapaciousness also leads her to undertake dalliances with a fellow student Ricky (Austin Lyon), as well as a Sapphic dabble with the punky Tabatha (Margarite Levieva). She recounts her adventures with wry detachment and winning increduilty into her titular diary, as well as more impressionistically in a series of wild illustrations.
Her artistry – blooming across the screen in glorious cartoon form – is heavily influenced by cartoonist Aline Kominsky (later wife to Robert Crumb) and shares Kominsky’s fondness for sexual grotesquerie and the glories of callipygian thighs.
This is not a hand-wringing, Larry Clarke styled examination of girl gone wild, but rather warm-hearted and considered in tone. Indeed, it’s a film so at ease and sure of itself its remarkable to consider it’s director Heller’s debut. There’s (thankfully) no moralising about Minnie’s behaviour, and secondary characters are painted in an equally sympathetic manner.
Skarsgard has such laconic charm as Monroe that you largely breeze by the despicableness of his actions and instead feel delighted Minnie has found such an energetic mentor for her sexual education – he’s less a calculated seducer, more unquestioningly opportunistic and a bit lonely and dim.
Kirsten Wiig’s turn as Minnie’s mother Charlotte is brief but also layered: what could have been the cliched role of a fading beauty envying her daughter’s ascent to womanhood is instead a more nuanced sketch of a woman half lost, half blissful in her immersion in the 70s counterculture. Charlotte sets an atmosphere of general permissiveness for her daughter: she’s a woman who has multiple boyfriends, but “Monroe’s definitely the man one” and likes to bump cocaine to help her power through the housework.
But despite the inevitable disaster that Minnie’s affair with Monroe lurches towards, and the listlessness of its characters, ultimately there’s an empowering message at Diary’s heart; enjoy sex, by all means, revel in it, but don’t use it to determine your self worth, and don’t think its the same thing as love.
It is a delight to watch Minnie come to these realisations, and entirely on her on terms.