"The Diary of a Teenage Girl" is a film that shouldn't be as uncommon as it is for American cinema. It's a seriously contemplative and revealing drama about a young woman lost and confused about her sexual identity upon committing one of society's most serious taboos and realizing that she liked it and might want to try it again. And again. And enough times to keep an audio diary of her thoughts and experiences about said act.
I'll catch you up; set in 1970's San Francisco, Minnie (Bel Powley), a fifteen-year-old girl and aspiring cartoonist, experiences her sexual awakening after losing her virginity to her mother's sorta-boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). Minnie considers herself overweight and undesirable in every sense, and is largely neglected by her Bohemian mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), who is usually too busy smoking weed or doing drugs with strangers to even notice her daughter, so this awakening comes as an immense shock to Minnie and her person.
Minnie begins to crave more sex and attention from Monroe, going as far as to make intimate sex with him a regular thing, in addition to craving sex from strangers and other boys her age, all under her mother's nose. This sex drive, however, is deeper than horniness, but a cry by Minnie for companionship, desire, and, most of all, love. Minnie wants to be the apple of someone's eye, so much so that when she leaves, the person feels like they'll die without her company and security.
I've long had the same hunger Minnie has had, though I've been fortunate, as a male, to see roughly two or three coming of age films that accurately reflect my emotions, my desires, and my sexual awakening. Young girls and stories of their sexual awakening have been cruelly shortchanged in American film and "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" takes note of that just by existing. Consider scenes when Monroe and Minnie have sex, makeout with one another, or Minnie describes past sexual advances to her best friend. If these scenes made you at all uncomfortable, uneasy, or awkward (like they did me), then writer and directress Marielle Heller has effectively proved that fact without even saying it. Now switch the genders of the two main characters, think about the situation over again, and see if you feel that same level of discomfort.
Heller unapologetically details Minnie's desires in a way that, while revealing, is whimsical, thanks to the presence of Minnie's drawings springing to life before her eyes. However, this occasional distraction is offset by Heller's honest depiction of Minnie and, most importantly, the rawer scenes of the film, like when we see Minnie stand naked before a mirror as she examines her body and voices her desire to be loved and cherished. It's something I'm sure most young girls have done at least a few times in their life; standing before a mirror entirely exposed and hoping someone will love you for all of you rather than just parts of you. It's the basic level of human feeling, and Minnie has discovered it and craves it much quicker than any of her friends have.
Bel Powley is a force on-screen here, positioning herself not as a fabled caricature but an empowering everygirl that transcends beyond the confines of a typical teenage girl into somebody many can relate to. It also helps that Powley, herself, is such a great screen presence, confident even when her character is insecure, and encapsulated in a bubble that teeters between innocence and the loss of innocence.
"The Diary of a Teenage Girl" could easily be paired with "Turn Me On, Goddammit!," a Norwegian coming of age drama about a girl relatively the same age as Minnie, who becomes entranced with masturbation and sexual pleasure so much so that it takes over her life. Truly impacting and significant coming of age stories for young girls are depressingly few and far between and here is a film that boldly asserts itself by silently calling audiences out on its double standards for young women, focusing on a relatable protagonist throughout the film, giving us artful direction and attractive aesthetics not as a means to sugarcoat but to humanize, and concluding the picture with an ending that, while unfortunately fairly radical for American cinema, hits as hard as some of the best endings of films this year.