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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

The Diary of a Teenage Girl movie review: crossing no-woman’s-land to adulthood

The Diary of a Teenage Girl green light

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. Yet it is.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies about girls and women

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

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.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of The Diary of a Teenage Girl for its representation of girls and women.

green light 5 stars

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The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)
US/Can release: Aug 07 2015
UK/Ire release: Aug 07 2015

MPAA: rated R for strong sexual content including dialogue, graphic nudity, drug use, language and drinking-all involving teens
BBFC: rated 18 (strong sex)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Howard Schumann

    I see nothing intriguing about irresponsible people acting irresponsibly. It is simply okay that a parent acts irresponsibly, provides no support for a growing adolescent, invades her privacy in the most blatant manner, and that her boyfriend engages in illegal activities with a minor of dubious morality. I guess it’s all part of the learning process, but does anyone ever learn the process of acting with integrity and responsibility?

  • That’s *exactly* what this is about. Have you seen the film?

  • Howard Schumann

    Yes, I have seen the film and it has many redeeming qualities, yet female empowerment has to mean more than sexual acting out. Female empowerment should not only be about sexual awakening but about integrity, taking responsibility for your life, awakening to the beauty and mystery of life, exploring music, art, literature, and spirituality, becoming involved in the world, in things larger than yourself.

    Given the emotional vacuum in which Minnie lives, there is nothing to indicate that any lessons have been learned. This is a one-dimensional film with the form of true self-awareness but without the substance.

  • So, when a girl or woman has sex, she is “acting out”?

    You cannot have seen this movie if you don’t think Minnie has a well-rounded experience in this film or that she lives in an emotional vacuum.

  • Howard Schumann

    No, not every girl or woman who has sex is acting out. In this case, however, Minnie’s obsession with sex which includes sleeping with multiple partners of all ages including prostituting herself seems to fulfill a deep-seated emotional longing for adult affection.

    Even her cartoons, of which she has considerable ability, mostly consists of representations of male and female genitalia. There is nothing to me which says that Minnie is a well-rounded individual who is having healthy relationships.

    I applaud the film for its rejection of conventional morality but its lack of any moral awareness is very disturbing.

  • prostituting herself

    What? How does she “prostitute herself”?

    Sleeping with multiple partners? You mean like boys and men do, and are applauded for it?

    mostly consists of representations of male and female genitalia

    Yeah, wow. No, they don’t.

  • Howard Schumann

    No, that is not what I meant. I meant receiving money for sexual favors, even if it was only a few dollars.

  • Where does this happen in the movie?

  • Howard Schumann

    Sometime in the last half hour if I remember correctly.

  • amanohyo

    As a half practical joke, half act of sexual bravado and one-upmanship, Minnie tells two men at a bar that she and her friend Kimmie will provide sexual favors for money. They call her bluff, and while holding each other’s hands for support, Minnie and Kimmie perform two bathroom blowjobs for five dollars a piece. Afterwards, they both agree that the act makes them feel uncomfortable, and decide to “never do anything like that again.”

    I understand Howard Schumann’s point about coming of age being about more than exploring sexuality, but Minnie and her family are not being presented as emotionally healthy individuals or role models. She is a young girl making the best of the situation she is in with self esteem issues who is incredibly horny – pretty much par for the course for most teens – boys and girls. It’s not surprising (in fact, it’s a cliche) that an artistic teen growing up in San Francisco in the 70’s would lead a somewhat “depraved” lifestyle – depraved for a girl of course – a boy would most likely receive high-fives and exclamations of nostalgic approbation if he was to recount identical experiences.

    This is not a comfortable movie to watch in part because it challenges the notion that an underage girl is always being taken advantage of when she engages in sex. In some sense, she is – her mother’s boyfriend should know better of course. However in another sense, the movie makes it clear that she is often satisfying her own sexual and emotional needs by manipulating her sexual partners. The two times someone tries to use sex specifically to manipulate her are presented negatively by the film: the bathroom blowjobs, and the encounter with the boyfriend/dealer of her lesbian girlfriend. One of the strengths of the film is that each sexual encounter is very different – it illustrates (literally) the multidimensional quality of sex – shows that it’s not only a simple seesaw of satisfaction, but also a language, a conversation that can take place in many different contexts.

    On a personal note, I knew two girls very similar to Minnie when I was a teen. I didn’t realize it at the time, but they told me years later that they were completely obsessed with sex and horny almost all the time during their high school years. They were raised in an environment with significantly more adult supervision and control than Minnie, but were similarly frustrated and overwhelmed by their desires. It must be strange as a young girl to be told that you have an amazing, burgeoning sexual power that you must never ever use. As young men, we are told that it is our duty and honor to make frequent and indiscriminate use of our newly functioning equipment.

    By the end of the film, it’s clear that Minnie has achieved a level of emotional stability, self-control, and personal integrity that she lacked in the beginning. She seems to have has swung a bit too far in the other direction by swearing off of all men, but perhaps given time, she will reach a happy medium, or perhaps not. The filmmakers are not suggesting that her path to responsibility and independence is the sole, correct one – it’s just one path that this one girl happened to take. While you may not identify with the specific experiences and events in the film, both men and women will recognize the emotional confusion, furtive longing, and frantic lust that accompanied their own childhoods.

    So, while the story is not typical or laudable, its emotional authenticity grants it a bit more universality than say, Mistress America (the other half of my artistic coming of age, double feature).

  • presented negatively by the film: the bathroom blowjobs,

    Ah, right, that’s probably why I didn’t think of this as “prostituting herself.”

    Minnie and her family are not being presented as emotionally healthy individuals or role models.

    But that is true of *so many people!* Are we supposed to ignore stories about people who aren’t perfect? How many boys’ coming-of-age stories adhere to the strict moralism Howard Schumann wants? Girls have to navigate all this crap, and very few movies deal with *any* of it.

    If *Diary* ends up spawning a subgenre of teen girls’ coming-of-age movies that turn what we see in this movie into clichés, then we can complain about it. But we know that’s not going to happen.

  • Please see this comment by me.

    And when I asked about your references to Minnie sleeping with multiple partners, I didn’t mean you were suggesting that constituted prostitution. I was wondering why you thought this is a problem when boys and men — in real life and in movies — are applauded when you do this? Does that bother you too, or are you holding Minnie to a standard you don’t hold men to? And if so, why?

  • Howard Schumann

    Owen Labrie, an 18-year-old Prep School student was convicted on several misdemeanor and one felony charge and may have to spend years in prison for having sex with a 15-year-old sophomore.

    The age difference was tree years. The film shows a relationship (not a one-time incident) where the age difference was 20 years. I am not a person who trumpets the cause of strict morality but only about the hypocrisy of a society where a film such as this can get away with depicting something that in real life could bring 20 years in prison – all in the name of “coming-of-age” and the “you go girl” attitude.

  • Howard Schumann

    First of all, I don’t think in life or in the movies teenage boys are applauded for having sex with multiple partners who include minors. The case of Owen Labrie which I
    referred to in a later post is an example of this.

    Perhaps it is approved of in some comedies about high school but this film is not a comedy.

    Here the film closes its eyes to morally dubious behavior, not commenting on Charlotte’s outrageous invasion of her daughter’s
    privacy when she listens to her private tape recordings which reveal the extent
    of her relationship with Monroe, or addressing the question of a parent’s
    responsibility to provide emotional support for a an emotionally fragile
    teenager, regardless of the environment in which they are living.

    While Minnie and Monroe go through the motions of self-reflection, ultimately there is little substance to their quest for self-understanding. There is only an emptiness inside that the film touched on but hardly explored and left me with a sense of unfulfillment.


  • No. You do NOT get to conflate rape — which is what he was accused of, and not statutory rape — with normal teenaged sexual exploration. No.

  • We clearly saw two different movies.

  • Matt Clayton

    I thought the sexual aspects of the movie were handled very tastefully. The way Marielle Heller handled scenes like Minnie examining herself in the mirror, for example, is decidedly not sexy and non-titillating. We’re seeing the mindset of the protagonist and how she perceives herself sexually, with all the self-doubt and awkwardness.

    And I was really impressed with Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgaard here. I almost didn’t recognize them.

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