I saw “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” right after watching Noah Baumbach’s “Mistress America”, and when my friend and I finally left the theater we spent the subway ride home comparing the two. Both are coming-of-age stories about young, creative women in big, North American cities. Both have been described as unique, honest and different, but “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” made a stronger impression on me and my friend.
Marielle Heller, a 2012 Sundance Screenwriting and Directing Fellow. directed the film. She adapted Phoebe Gloeckner’s novel of the same name into the screenplay. It stars Bel Powley as Minnie, a precocious fourteen-year-old from San Francisco whose audio diary serves as the narration. Her drawings and cartoons also illustrate her ideas and thoughts, which become the focus of the film. I felt it stood out from other coming-of-age stories because of the way the film reflects Minnie’s efforts to take control of her life and personhood.
The film begins after Minnie loses her virginity to Monroe, her mother’s adult boyfriend, played by Alexander Skarsgård, known for his roles in True Blood and Zoolander.
She is thrilled and walks through San Francisco with a new curiosity for sex, which seems to be everywhere. She records in her diary, “This makes me officially an adult.” She then continues her teenage life, practicing drawing, talking and going out with her friend Kimmie and having sex with other teenagers.
Meanwhile, she is in love with Monroe and continuing a sexual relationship with him behind her mother’s back. Minnie falls hopelessly in love with Monroe, daydreams about him and even manipulates him into continuing their relationship or into having sex.
But at the same time it’s very clear that Minnie is a fourteen-year-old, and Monroe is an adult dating her and her mother.
This isn’t another Lolita or Oedipus however, because Minnie is telling the story. I didn’t feel like I was observing her, I felt like I was being invited by a human being to witness her situation and feel alongside her.
Her relationship with Monroe is serious and a major part of the plot, but at the same time, she has a lot more going on in her life, and the movie passes the Bechdel test easily. At one point when Monroe tries to end their relationship she even says, “I refuse to be some sniveling cry baby. This is my life.” She declares to take back the control of her emotions.
But despite this declaration, she’s still a teenage girl and some things are out of her control. She can’t control her relationship with a grown man or make the teenage boys she meets understand her. She looses control due to drugs and alcohol more than once and regrets her decisions.
The film reads like a list of Minnie trying to do the things she wants to do: draw, have sex and be loved, all the while realizing that she can’t do all of those things all of the time.
In the face of these challenges, Minnie has a sense of humor and isn’t afraid to show emotion, crying and screaming more than once. Her diary and drawings clearly illustrate her feelings and even though I hadn’t experienced exactly what she was going through, I was able to relate to and feel strongly for her.
Despite Minnie being unable to completely dictate everything about her life, the film is empowering. Unfortunately, the film’s rating prevented many teenagers, like Minnie, from seeing the film. Even on IMDB the top comment today describes the film as being like “child pornography,” and accuses people who sat through the film of being pedophiles.
The film does feature a fourteen-year-old having sex and discovering her sexuality. It also features her having sex with an adult man, which is statutory rape. However, the film is Minnie’s story. From her point of view we learned that the relationship was unhealthy and a bad idea. It hurt her mother, played by Kristen Wiig, and it wasn’t allowing her to grow as a person and empower herself.
Through the relationship, however, she learned about sex, which she discovered was something she loved, and about romantic relationships, even if in a perverse way. I can’t deny that their relationship was disturbing, but it was supposed to be. It was another example of how hard it is to be a teenager and also of the humanity of everyone involved.
While the film opens with Minnie reflecting on her life after having sex for the first time, it ends after she gives Monroe a drawing as a peace offering. In both scenes she is the one in control. As for those who believe that teenage girls having sex is blatantly immoral and that other teenagers should be protected from exposure to sexuality, (including the supposedly ugly side), they didn’t understand the message of the film.
Minnie doesn’t sugar-coat anything and forces the audience to reflect on controversial and challenging issues, but she also showed the audience how cool, funny and interesting teenage girls are.
Her drawings are beautiful and she walks through San Francisco with a cartoon version of Aline Kominsky-Crumb, an underground cartoonist, to whom she poetically describes her problems. She’s sarcastic and dramatic, making snide comments but also asserts herself and has a mature and difficult conversation with her father.
We’re constantly reminded that Minnie is incredibly smart, interesting, reckless and a teenager. I thought the movie was really entertaining, beautiful and smart, and it gave an interesting perspective on what it’s like to grow up.