A film that addresses teenage sexuality in a way that is neither salacious nor condescending is such a rare beast, but alas, that is exactly what we have here. In what is a remarkable debut for several of the key players, The Diary of a Teenage Girl offers an honest examination of the moral and emotional complexities that surround the burgeoning sexual curiosities inherent in being a 15-year-old girl. This is a raw, rambunctious exploration of the confusion, irrationality and experimentation of youth in which Minnie Goetz (Bel Powley) serves as an embodiment of the countless teenagers who, having freed themselves from the shackles of their virginity, have set forth on a path of sexual awakening and enlightenment. Writer/director Marielle Heller obviously has a close affinity with the story – having adapted Phoebe Gloeckner’s semi-autobiographical illustrated novel into a play in 2010, a production in which she also starred as Minnie – and she has delivered a thoroughly engaging, amusing and convincing cinematic rendition of adolescence.
Pretty much left to her own devices by her self-absorbed bohemian mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), Minnie willingly loses her virginity to Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), Charlotte’s 35-year-old boyfriend. Whilst the ongoing affair causes Minnie much emotional angst, it is more to do with the deception she is inflicting upon her mother than any issues with the age difference. In fact, the age gap between Monroe and Millie hardly raises an eyebrow and there is certainly no suggestion, thankfully, that Monroe is paedophilic. In fact, given that Charlotte encourages Millie to show some skin and use her ‘assets’ to her advantage, it is hard to imagine that the relationship would cause much of a ripple in the household at all if not for Monroe’s existing status as her mother’s partner. Millie’s sense of self fluctuates from feeling she is too fat or unattractive to a confidence that enables her to take control in her sexual liaisons. Soon enough, Millie is hooking up with those her own age of both genders (and discovering just how clueless teenage boys are when it comes to sex), consuming drugs and alcohol and engaging in the types of behaviours that prove both empowering and extremely risky. Millie is determined to use her new-found sexual powers for all manner of experiences, but is also smart enough to understand when things have gone too far, such as when she and best friend Kimmie (Madeleine Waters) drunkenly deliver blowjobs for money or when the alluring but damaged Tabitha (Margarita Levieva) wants to pimp her out to clear a debt.
Right from the opening line – “I had sex today. Holy shit!” – The Diary of a Teenage Girl promises something quite different and subsequently delivers. Anchored by an alarmingly assured performance from Powley in her first feature film role (she has since appeared as Princess Margaret in A Royal Night Out) this is a film that is far more mature than the glut of teen flicks designed purely for the titillation of the male audience and in which young women exist purely for the purpose of objectification. There will no doubt be many moronic moralisers who will decry this film as offensive and obscene, but this is most definitely not an exercise in exploitation. Minnie’s experiences resemble those of teenagers the world over and it is so refreshing to see an acknowledgment that sex is very much a part of the teenage experience and is every bit as exhilarating and confusing as every other aspect of adolescence. Despite the emotional roller coaster on which she finds herself, Minnie emerges as the smartest person in the film. Neither Charlotte nor Monroe are particularly adept at the responsibilities of adulthood, while her father Pascal (Christopher Meloni) is a pompous New York-based academic who flitters in and out of her life.
The 1970’s San Francisco setting is gorgeously rendered, from the set designs to the costumes to the streetscapes, all accompanied by a superb soundtrack from the era that includes the likes of T-Rex and Television. Wiig is so good that you easily forget about the outrageous comic persona on which she has built her career thus far and, with hallucinogenic animated sequences – many of which see Minnie interacting with her cartoonist hero Aline Kominsky-Crumb – along with additional flourishes of magic realism, there is so much that makes this a thoroughly enjoyable viewing experience. Whilst The Diary of a Teenage Girl celebrates the joy of sex, it certainly does not shy away from the pitfalls that come with it. Learning as she goes along, Minnie is ultimately empowered to take control of her body and sexuality and this is exactly the type of movie that teenagers of both sexes need to see.