Review: The Diary of a Teenage Girl
By Lauren Cohen
So begins “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” a fearless coming of age story that feels like a product of a bygone era, a time before political correctness was the name of the game. Because unlike so many things that make their way into the Hollywood machine, “Diary” is not afraid of inciting the outrage so pervasive in our everyday lives today, and it’s not concerned with making sure you’re comfortable. It wears its controversy on its sleeve, which is something that is embedded in the very plot: Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) is a 15-year-old girl who starts sleeping with her mother’s 35-year-old boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). Taking place in San Francisco in 1976, most of the film’s 102-minute runtime focuses on Minnie’s sexual awakening, with her encountering a mix of experiences that are good, bad, and somewhere in between.
The relationship between Monroe and Minnie is uncomfortable to watch, but the film never directly condemns it. In some ways, it would be easier on the viewer if director Marielle Heller made Monroe into a sleazy villain who seduces an impressionable young girl. But the film lives in a grey area, one that is much more interesting to explore. Their relationship is tumultuous, with the power struggle sometimes even tipping in Minnie’s favor. Here, Minnie is the aggressor, not just with Monroe, but with the multiple other people she explores her sexuality with. She finds herself all consumed with sex, so much so that her ferocity and hunger is intimidating to one of her age-appropriate partners. “You’re just so intense,” the guy says to her while they’re making out. “There’s something about having sex with you Minnie -- it kind of scares me.”
Minnie is clearly hurt by his words. An aspiring cartoonist, many of her thoughts are brought to life by her doodles and drawings (a device that betrays the film’s Sundance roots). But instead of being sickeningly quirky, they’re visual flourishes that give us the ability to empathize with Minnie to the fullest extent. So when that boy calls her “intense,” we don’t just see her face fall: We see her cartoon drawing of a “harlot” giantess holding the tiny boy in her hand, her face scrunched up in shame and disappointment before she throws him to the ground and runs away. And it’s hugely effective.
Minnie is neither the nymphomaniac her friend suggests, nor the mature-beyond-her-years girl she sees herself as. She’s undeniably precocious, and the film never suggests that she's a representation of all teenagers. But even when Minnie is acting in ways that are shocking for a girl of her age, there is never a moment that lets you forget just how old she really is. Whether it’s the incessant girlish giggling and play flirting, or the way she views her outrageous and risky sexual exploits as something of a bragging point to share with her best friend, she manages to be portrayed as a sexual being and a vulnerable young girl at the same time – thanks entirely to the magnificent performance by Bel Powley. The 23-year-old British actress has mastered the physicality and vocal inflections of a young girl without sacrificing naturalness, and she is a true revelation.
Minnie pushes the boundaries of her sexuality, often past the point she’s comfortable with. But even so, the end result here is purely positive and optimistic; the viewer never gets the urge to negatively judge her, and her life isn’t ruined by her actions. In fact, we get the distinct feeling that she’ll be just fine.
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is now playing in South Florida theaters.