“I had sex today. Holy shit!”
So begins “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” a fearless coming of age story that feels like a product of a bygone era, a time before political correctness was the name of the game. Because unlike so many things that make their way into the Hollywood machine, “Diary” is not afraid of inciting the outrage so pervasive in our everyday lives today, and it’s not concerned with making sure you’re comfortable. It wears its controversy on its sleeve, which is something that is embedded in the very plot: Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) is a 15-year-old girl who starts sleeping with her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) 35-year-old boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). Taking place in San Francisco in 1976, most of the film’s 102-minute runtime focuses on Minnie’s sexual awakening, with her encountering a mix of experiences that are good, bad, and somewhere in between.
In some ways, it would be easier on the viewer if director Marielle Heller made Monroe into a sleazy villain who seduces an impressionable young girl. But the film lives in a grey area, one that is much more interesting to explore. Their relationship is tumultuous, but Heller never directly condemns it. In fact, there are moments where the power struggle between the two tips in Minnie’s favor. She’s the aggressor here, not just with Monroe, but with the multiple other people she explores her sexuality with. She finds herself all consumed with sex, so much so that her ferocity and hunger is intimidating to one of her age-appropriate partners. “You’re just so intense,” the guy says to her while they’re making out. “There’s something about having sex with you…it kind of scares me.”
Minnie is clearly hurt by his words. An aspiring cartoonist, her thoughts are frequently brought to life by her doodles and drawings — a device that betrays the film’s Sundance roots. But instead of being sickeningly quirky, they’re visual flourishes that give us the ability to empathize with Minnie to the fullest extent. So when that boy calls her “intense,” we don’t just see her face fall: We see her cartoon drawing of a “harlot” giantess holding the tiny boy in her hand, her face scrunched up in shame and disappointment before she throws him to the ground and runs away. And it’s hugely effective.
Minnie is neither the nymphomaniac her friend suggests, nor the mature-beyond-her-years girl she sees herself as. But even when Minnie is in the throes of sexual passion, there is never a moment that lets you forget just how old she really is. Whether it’s the girlish giggling and play flirting, or the way she views her outrageous and risky sexual exploits as a bragging point to share with her best friend, she manages to be portrayed as a sexual being and a vulnerable young girl at the same time – all without being creepy or exploitive.
In one of the first scenes, we see what led to Minnie’s hookup with Monroe. They’re playing around, Minnie trying to prove that she can bite Monroe’s hand hard enough to hurt him. Her playful biting soon evolves into her sucking on his finger, and the tension is palpable. It’s risky to have a scene like this within the first ten minutes, but it’s that honesty and boldness that makes “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” a treasure. And so much of what makes it work is due to Bel Powley’s magnificent performance. The 23-year-old British actress has mastered the physicality and vocal inflections of a young girl without sacrificing naturalness, and she is a true revelation.
Minnie pushes the boundaries of her sexuality, often past the point she’s comfortable with. But even so, the end result here is purely positive and optimistic; the viewer never gets the urge to negatively judge her, and her life isn’t ruined by her actions. In fact, we get the distinct feeling that she’ll be just fine.
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is now in theaters. For showtimes in Miami Beach, click here