The projector kept choking, at the press screening of The Diary of a Teenage Girl I attended. For a long stretch during the middle of the film, every few minutes it would sputter and skip and then just go black. It was a little annoying, of course, and a bit of a mood killer, naturally, but mostly it was kind of amusing. I found myself thinking: Even this machine has been trained to think that any depiction of raw, bawdy female sexual desire is dangerous, and cannot be allowed, and is freaking out.
Everything we’re used to seeing about boys and sex onscreen, all the longing and all the lust, is here, and then some. Because all that longing and lust belongs to 15-year-old Minnie (Bel Powley: A Royal Night Out), and she is enjoying the hell out of it without shame and without fear. With some anxiety and confusion, to be sure; she is 15. But mostly with a lot of relaxed fun, as if there was nothing to be embarrassed about. And as if her sexuality actually belongs to her, and is primarily hers to enjoy. Writer-director Marielle Heller, making her debut, never treats Minnie as if she is here for the pleasure of the viewer, like most films treat women’s sexuality; we are almost incidental, peeking in, eavesdropping, but not in a voyeuristic way. Which the amazing Powley makes impossible anyway: the actress (who is, at 23, presumably older enough than Minnie to have a bit of perspective on her own coming of age) proudly owns Minnie’s randy good cheer, and plows through her insecurities via the discovery of the self-esteem boost that comes from the knowledge that “somebody wants to have sex with you.”
Imagine that. It shouldn’t be radical to see a movie treat a girl with this level of appreciation and understanding of her most intimate inner self, but with how movies like to pretend that women aren’t people, it is.
It’s 1976 San Francisco, and Minnie, an “aspiring cartoonist,” tells her own story in a way that is charming in its crossing of the borderland between childhood and adulthood, pouring her coolly astonished observations into a tape-recorded diary and exploring her new power as a sexual being in her cartoons, like the one where she imagines herself as a giant striding the sidewalks of a city she now feels like the conquerer of. (Visually and aesthetically, Diary is in the same neighborhood as American Splendor.) (Oh, but I worry a little whether this depiction of a sexually self-possessed teenage girl was considered acceptable for mainstream public consumption because it is set in the past, in an era that has become sort of mythic in its permissiveness, as if we could excuse it by pretending that Minnie couldn’t exist today. But this is based on a semiautobiographical graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, who was Minnie’s age in the mid 70s, so that makes me feel a little less cynical. But only a little.) Yet we can still see the innocence in her, mostly via her wildly inappropriate relationship with her mother’s boyfriend, Munroe (Alexander Skarsgård: The Giver, The East), who is 35 years old and kind of a jerk, and not only because he should know better than to be having sex with a teenager. Their relationship isn’t glamorized, simply acknowledged as both a thing that does actually happen sometimes and, in the meta context, as a very typical fantasy for adolescent girls: “Yay, older man finds me attractive!” (Later comes the accompanying realization that she deserves better, and that’s a bitter side of reality that stories about boys’ sexual awakenings never seem to deal with: that many of our fantasies turn out to be problematic in lots of ways.) Her naïveté comes through in some adventures with her friends Tabitha (Margarita Levieva: The Loft, Knights of Badassdom) and Kimmie (Madeleine Waters), too, in which she learns that not all the ways in which women are pressured to express their sexuality are very much fun.
Oh, and Minnie’s mom, Charlotte? She’s played by Kristen Wiig (Welcome to Me, How to Train Your Dragon 2), who is rapidly becoming one of the most intriguing and adventurous actresses working today. Here, in the first role I’ve seen her in that is almost solely a dramatic one, she’s absolutely marvelous in how she captures, in only a few scenes, an older, more melancholy perspective on female sexuality.
Diary is funny, though, maybe even funnier — and definitely even more frank — than most movies about boys and sex are. Or perhaps it only feels more outrageous because we simply never get to hang out with a girl who is newly investigating this wonderful terrifying side of being human. I love this movie. I love everything about it. We need many more like it.