Marielle Heller’s directorial debut The Diary of a Teenage Girl is not merely a coming-of-age tale, but rather a contemplative and deeply revealing drama concerning a teenage girl’s attempts to make sense of her sexual identity, with only her already complicated notions of love from her mother’s failed marriages and relationships to draw upon.
Set in 1970s San Francisco; the film centres around Minnie (Bel Powley), an aspiring cartoonist, who experiences her sexual awakening after losing her virginity to her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). She then spirals into an all-consuming desire for sexual encounters in lieu of her deeper longings for romantic love and, ultimately, self-acceptance.
I really liked how this film dealt with the concept of female sexuality, especially that of a younger teenager growing up in an era where sexual liberation was at the forefront of society, and in which exploration of sexuality was met with encouragement. Heller’s portrayal of Minnie’s desires is neither gritty or objectifying, and nor is her unconventional entrance into sexuality romanticised or vilified. Given that her character is merely fifteen years of age and engages in an illicit affair with her mother’s thirty-something boyfriend, the focus is placed not on her status as a victim of abuse or statutory rape, but upon her turmoil and confusion as she attempts to understand her purpose in the world.
In doing so, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is allowed to become a decidedly whimsical portrayal of a young girl’s perspective of the events, and this is furthered by the frequent intrusion of Minnie’s illustrations within scenes to punctuate her thoughts. However, occasional jolts toward dramatic irony leave an uncomfortable feeling within the narrative—such as an instance of Minnie joyfully shouting “help, I’m being raped!” during intercourse with Monroe, which (I think) not only highlights her obliviousness to the seriousness of her situation, but also serves as an acknowledgement of the abuse within the narrative on Heller’s part. This allows Heller to focus on Minnie’s interpretation of events without the aforementioned romanticising of them without directly tackling them and, subsequently, shifting the film towards a much heavier tone.
It also transpires that Minnie is largely ignored by her mother, whilst the man she’s come to know as a father lives in New York and thus has little to know idea of Minnie’s life in any detail. Her sister Gretel (Abby Wait), on the other hand, eavesdrops on the multitude of conversations in the house. Despite all of this, Minnie’s only means of outlet appear to be a tape-recorder that she treats as a sort of audio-diary, which serves not only as a means of internal monologue and voiceover, but as a means of emphasising her personal isolation within her domestic situation and wider social sphere.
I think the treatment of her sense of her own personal isolation was a major high-point within the film. Sure, it’s great that the protagonist is a girl who’s allowed to explore her sexuality without being reduced to a sex symbol or being stripped of her power (despite her status as an unwitting victim of abuse), and I love that. But what I found particularly great about The Diary of a Teenage Girl is the unapologetic way in which Heller portrays the insecurities of young women, how they fester when combined with loneliness, and how society conditions them to react to their sexuality and, by extension, themselves.
Minnie’s sexual awakening ushers in a multitude of insecurities and self doubts, with her view of herself as ugly, fat, and undesirable being met by her mother’s assertions that she should “put herself about more” by way of wearing skirts and makeup (unbeknown to her mother that she is engaging in frequent sex with Monroe). Once Minnie engages in sexual intercourse with him she becomes intoxicated with the idea of someone desiring her; and as her sexual experiences increase in number her conflation of sexual desire and love intensifies in correlation. When Monroe attempts to break things off with her, she chalks it down to her appearance—going as far as to write him a note asserting that she knows he “thinks [she’s] fat”. She frequently references her unhappiness with her appearance throughout the film, and internalises the idea that her self-worth is dependent upon her sexual attractiveness, and by extension, the amount of sexual desire she is shown.
All of her opinions surrounding sex and love are intrinsic of each other: from her belief that having sex changes her appearance and aura, to her conflation of sex and love that causes her to proclaim she “might as well kill herself” if no-one loves her—and it is her internalisation of these notions that struck me as some of the most compelling parts.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl may preoccupy itself with the sexual journey of a young woman; but to me the most important strand of the narrative is her acceptance of herself beyond her sexual exploits. Despite her struggle to separate her self worth from her levels of sexual activity and attractiveness, by the end of the film she asserts that she does not need a man to be happy. It’s the journey of a girl suffering the insecurities and self doubt that comes from a society that pressures women into being sexual beings. Her strive for love within lust is not entirely naive; it’s to be expected. Her insecurities are understandable, as well as relatable.
Really, I think I just loved this film because its core centres around the struggles and insecurities of young women—regardless of the “I’m a teenager who’s fucking my mother’s boyfriend” narrative—and it’s not reduced to Minnie finding love in her quirky friend. Unlike so many other gyrocentric coming-of-age films, she is not reduced to an alcoholic, substance abusing wreck despite her frequent engagement with both elements. She is allowed to be sexual, experiment, be ugly in her failures, express her sadness, and regain herself without her character being reduced to a solely romantic or sexual being. She does not have to apologise to anyone (except for her mother, obviously) for her actions. She is not apologetic for her sexuality. She is allowed to be unashamed. And for me, that was refreshing. This sort of film shouldn’t be as uncommon within cinema as it is, and I won’t be removing from my watch-list in the foreseeable future.