It doesn’t take long to realise that The Diary of a Teenage Girl, written and directed with a playful yet dark intensity by Marielle Heller, is not your typical quirky indie teenage drama.
Granted, the 1976-set film, based on the book The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures by Phoebe Gloeckner, gives every appearance of being that for a second or two with socially ill-at-ease teen Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) wandering goofily through a park filled with loving couples on blankets on a sunshiny day.
But then she utters the immortal words, “I had sex today. HO-LY SHIIIIT”,with all the wonderment of a convert finding their god for the first time, and it becomes readily apparent in an instant that this is not going to be your typical innocent teen figuring out the complexities of adult life in a charming and endearing way.
There is, of course, a great deal of charm, much of it drawn from the intense, epically heartfelt way Minnie experiences pretty much everything about her new, sexually-promiscuous life.
It’s not merely sex for this preternaturally sexual 15 year old who, rather scandalously and unsettlingly much of the time, falls into her bed with mum Charlotte’s (Kristen Wiig in one of her increasingly confident, nuanced dramatic turns) 35 year handsome boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) not once but multiple times to their mutual delight.
Rather, everything is written large and in vividly-rendered neon for the young girl who fails to understand that she’s trying to plug a dysfunctional hole in her life – no pun intended – with the oldest distracting tactic in the book, Real Love not sex, A Passionate Love Affair not statutory rape, the Beginning of the Rest of Her Life Where Everything is Different rather than a tawdry desperate, and in the case of Monroe, highly inappropriate “relationship”.
For aspiring artist Minnie, of course, who sees school as an impediment to her wider ambition of becoming a comic artist like her heroine Aline Kominsky, who comes alive through some of the gloriously colourful, emotionally cathartic animation that augments Minnie’s more intensely emotional moments, it’s all life-changing EVERYTHING.
For Monroe, at least at first, nothing more than thinking with something other than his adult heart and mind; he is revealed, unsurprisingly, as less grown up than his scandalously young lover as the film progresses.
Where The Diary of a Teenage Girl impresses is with the way it treats the way Minnie feels, and the way she interprets everything that happens to her in the most positive, life-affirming ways possible, typical of the manner in which we experience all the first things of our life, particularly as teenagers.
There are greys, no passive, meaningless inbetweens; everything is graphically – in the case of Minnie’s increasingly sexually graphic artwork, this happens literally – tremendously, HUGELY important.
She’s convinced that Monroe LOVES her, that he is thinking about her ALL THE TIME, that even though he continues to come around to see her mother, who though she loves Minnie and younger sister Gretel (Abigail Wait) is better at drinking and snorting cocaine than being maternal, he is really doing so just for appearances.
She commits all these, any many other feverishly intense thoughts to tape, speaking into the recording machine as if she is the David Attenborough of teen sexuality, the first person to have observed and experienced these intensely sexual feelings and longings for more, more, MORE.
Listening to her words alone you’d be convinced she has a firm and incisive grasp on what’s happening to her, embellishments aside; but Heller authentically lets Minnie also make more than her fair share of mistakes, revealing as expected, that she’s just another teen way in over her head trying to make sense of very adult things from a still quite limited perspective.
This is not to say her observations don’t carry weight and meaning; to Minnie they are THE WORLD, and then some, and are giving due reverence by Heller, and Powley who treads a fine balance between goofily light and darkly intense.
Rather that real though this all feels, and for Minnie it is a defining moment in her life, an emancipation from a semi-loving, dysfunctional childhood defined by artistic imaginings and rich fantasy, it is by no means the whole story, something which is allowed to unfurl as the film progresses and Minnie discovers there’s more to adulthood than falling into bed with the first person who pays attention to you.
Unexpectedly, The Diary of a Teenage Girl takes some pretty dark turns, with some reasonably harrowing moments creeping in to darken Minnie’s hitherto “Everything is AWESOME!” palette of life experiences.
Some near misses, the revelation of peoples’ true colours, stripped of Minnie’s romanticising, idealising filter, and an affirmation that she doesn’t need anyone to be happy – this moral of the story is happily delivered without a trace of movie-of-the- week cloying sentimentality, as authentic as the rest of the film – add some real depth and insight to Minnie’s anything-but-goofy coming of age story.
The film gives real validity to Minnie’s sexual awakening, and the emotional awakenings that comes in its wake, validating every step of the way how normal and natural what she feels is, even if the circumstances in which they come about are anything but normal, natural and or even remotely appropriate.
Much is made of the ’70s freewheeling, anything goes ethos, and the era is created faithfully without artifice by cinematographer Brandon Trost, but in the end, what matters is the intensely meaningful experiences of one remarkable, quite capable (eventually) teenage girl who discovers, as we all must, that life is a good deal more complicated, and rewarding, than any of us initially give it credit for.