“I had sex today. Holy shit.”
15-year old Minnie Goetze is walking across the park, a smile spreading across her face at this thought. The gawky girl wears it a like a badge of honour. Her face is radiant as she passes groups of hippies. Until a jogger with an ample bosom passes her, and she looks down at her own, much smaller chest. There it is. One of the most seminal moments in many a girl’s existence: obsessing over whether your breasts are big enough.
It’s 1976. San Francisco. The sexual revolution and time free love of have dawned.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is one of the most refreshingly unconventional films made about puberty in, like, bloody forever. Based on the 2002 semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, this is a bold account of a young girl’s sexual awakening that will shock you, make you laugh, and break your heart just a little.
On the day she loses her virginity, Minnie (Bel Powler) walks home, closes the door to her room, takes out an old tape recorder and microphone, and begins to record her diary.
About how she had sex with her mother’s 35-year old boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård).
There is no guilt involved, however. Minnie’s relationship with her mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), is one in which mother and daughter act like sisters, though the beautiful, haughty, life-of-the-party Charlotte is somewhat dismissive of Minnie’s distinct disinterest in make-up, skirts, and boys (oh how you were mistaken there, Charlotte).
For Minnie, sex means she’s officially an adult. She continues sleeping with Monroe, diarising her experiences in graphic detail, both verbally and in her sketch book. The aspiring cartoonist/comic book artist creates stunning and moving drawings of her hopes, adventures and fantasies, that come to life through animation, giving the film an ethereal feel. Having sex makes Minnie feel free and confident, but at the same time there is the typical self-consciousness inherent to teenagehood. She wonders whether her body is attractive enough, whether she’s fat, whether she’s pretty. She enjoys sex, and wants more. While standing in a record store, a sketched, cartoon penis drops down from the ceiling, as she wonders, “Do other people think about fucking as much as I do?”
But, like most 15-year olds who are caught in a storm of intense emotions, Minnie also wants to fall in love. “I want someone to be so totally in love with me that they would feel like they would die if I didn’t love them back,” she tells her diary. And later… “I want a body pressed up next to me, just to know that I’m really here.”
It being the 70s, drugs are everywhere. Minnie gets high with her mother, with Monroe, and with her best friend, Kimmie. At first, it may appear that the film glorifies drugs, but later, it also reveals the falsehood of chemically-induced happiness. The story is inherently controversial, not because it’s so unashamed about sex (that shouldn’t warrant any controversy, though people being people there will be yacking about ‘promiscuity’ and ‘morality’), but because of the Lolita-factor. Does the film endorse the relationship between a 35-year old man and a 15-year old girl, even though she may be the instigator? Is this downplaying what would come down to statutory rape? It’s a disturbing thought and that’s really a question for the viewer to decide. While there is an obvious and undeniable power play in the relationship between an adult and teenager, Minnie also learns to stand her ground.
Bel Powler gives one of the freshest, most powerfully intense, and comic performances of the year as the idiosyncratic Minnie. There is beauty in her awkwardness, in her honesty, in the intensity of her emotions, underwritten by the hormones that are coursing through her veins. Wigg delivers Charlotte with dark humour and a tinge of sadness while Swedish heartthrob Skarsgård shows why he is one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is introspective and funny and beautiful and really just a magnificent film, but certainly not for anyone squeamish about sex or uncomfortable with intimate, almost pornographic (but not unrealistic) descriptions of it. These aren’t necessarily there for shock value, though some of my older, male colleagues walked out of the film before the end, while others made disapproving noises.
This honest story takes you into the headspace of a girl and reveals those thoughts that usually go unvoiced – the ones about your insecurities, your bad body image, about sex, and love, and life. It’s about the myriad contradictory and turbulent feelings that pull like weights at your heart and makes you want to explode with something that you don’t yet have the vocabulary to describe.
This is the indie film of the year.
Director: Marielle Heller
Cast: Bel Powler, Alexander Skarsgård, Kristen Wigg
Rating: 5 out of 5
SA release date: 23 October 2015