The Diary of a Teenage Girl

September 25, 2015
Bel Powley in "The Diary of a Teenage Girl' (2015)
Bel Powley in "The Diary of a Teenage Girl' (2015)

“I had sex today. Holy shit!” Welcome to The Diary of a Teenage Girl – a film that throws us into the deep end with its opening line. The place is San Francisco, the time 1976, and the narrator, 15-year-old Minnie Goetz – a precocious schoolgirl who confides everything to her tape recorder. Minnie recounts how she has just lost her virginity with her mother’s boyfriend. It’s only the first step in an alarming cavalcade of sexual experimentation.

In San Francisco the summer of love is long gone, but nobody told Minnie’s mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig). Having never gotten over the counterculture, Charlotte is bringing up Minnie and her younger sister, Gretel (Abby Wait), in a completely unstructured way. The girls’ father, Pascal (Christopher Meloni) teaches at a university in New York, phoning occasionally to give parenting advice to his estranged wife.

Minnie is played by British actress, Bel Powley. It is a career-launching role that she may never live down, as there is enough sex and nudity here for a decade’s worth of movies. After this film Powley went off to play a giddy version of the young Princess Margaret in A Royal Night Out. In that frivolous confection, Powley was overshadowed by the luminous beauty of Sarah Gadon, but in The Diary of a Teenage Girl she is the undisputed centre of attention.

Powley is 23, but does an effortless impersonation of 15. Her face is dominated by a huge pair of blue eyes which give her a doll-like appearance. She can look beautiful or frumpy by turns, which is just right for Minnie, who alternates between feeling she is too fat or plain, and acting like a sex goddess. It’s not exactly unusual during that hormonal roller-coaster ride known as adolescence.

The object of her affections is Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), a terminally unmotivated bohemian in his mid-30s, who spends his time getting drunk and stoned with Charlotte. To Minnie he seems the most handsome man in the world. To the viewer he is a pathetic character who is more seduced than seducer. Monroe allows himself to get involved with an under-age girl without thinking of the consequences. He carries on because it’s fun.

Minnie’s grand ambition is to be an artist, and her drawings regularly leap off the page and lumber across the screen – literally when she imagines herself as a version of the 50 Foot Woman. Her idol is Aline Kominsky, (AKA. Mrs. Robert Crumb), who appears in cartoon form to provide homespun wisdom, such as “alienation is good for the art”.

Minnie tells us she loves sex, and wants to do it all the time. She has a fling with a boy from school, intimidating him with her ardour. There is a lesbian encounter with a drugged-up girl named Tabatha, and a night when she and her friend, Kimmie (Madeleine Waters), play at being prostitutes, giving blow jobs for money. After the last episode they lie together on Minnie’s bed and agree it was a bad idea.

This may be a film guaranteed to offend the Moral Majority, but it is not an exercise in exploitation. The story is dedicated, in Minnie’s words, “to all the girls when they have grown,” because her experiences resemble those of countless teenagers once they have dispensed with the stumbling block of virginity. Minnie has a furious, irrational desire to try everything in a perpetual testing of her sexual powers. She is also thinking, inevitably, about love. “What’s the point of living if nobody loves you, nobody touches you, nobody sees you?” she asks. The urgency of these thoughts feels raw and convincing.

This echoes the way debut director, Marielle Heller, responded to Phoebe Gloeckner’s semi-autobiographical illustrated novel, upon which the film is based. Heller originally turned the story into a play in 2010, in which she acted in the role of Minnie. When the part was put out for casting, Powley claims to have felt an equally strong affinity with the character.

Regardless of her emotional instability, Minnie is easily the smartest person in the film. Her mother and Monroe, whose main purpose in life is to get high, are neither role models nor responsible adults. By the end of the movie Minnie has arrived at a more realistic assessment of her own capabilities alongside those of the older generation.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is an assured effort for a first-time director, although it’s possible Heller will never find another story that inspires the same level of commitment. Although Minnie is the focal point, the details of San Francisco in the seventies are meticulously laid in. The Patty Hearst case is playing in the TV news, Minnie wears a “Mickey Rat” t-shirt, and has an Iggy Pop poster on her bedroom wall. Her terraced house is dim and untidy. The ideology of sexual freedom has yet to be undone by the AIDS epidemic.

Part of the fascination of this film is to ask what has changed in the lives of teenage girls since the 1970s. While Minnie’s feelings and experiences will still ring true to many viewers, the internet has introduced an X factor into the way adolescents come to terms with their sexuality. The teen diary of today is not a collection of private thoughts hidden in a cupboard but a series of postings on social media. The result is to weaken the distinction between reality and role-playing, undermining the foundations of identity. Minnie, however, knows how to keep it real. She may be a teenage sex-maniac, but her great strength is the possession of an inner life.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Directed by Marielle Heller
Screenplay by Marielle Heller, from an illustrated novel by Phoebe Gloeckner
Starring Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgard, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Meloni, Abby Wait, Miranda Bailey, Madeleine Waters, Austin Lyon, Margarita Levieva
USA, rated MA 15+, 102 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 26th September, 2015.