Despite the rather dull title, Marielle Heller’s debut feature is quite a bold movie. Based on the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, The Diary of a Teenage Girl tells the story of Minnie (Bel Powley), who is coming of age in the haze of mid-seventies San Francisco, and whose inner life is thrown upside down after she loses her virginity to her mother’s boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard). A girl’s sexual awakening is always a tricky subject to talk about -taking into account the prudish nature of contemporary society- and it only gets trickier when said girl’s sexual awakening comes at the hands of a 35 year-old man.
Thankfully, Heller is up to the task. There are certain limitations to the movie, chief among them the fact that despite individual idiosyncrasies and details within the narrative, one goes into the movie knowing exactly what kind of character arc to expect. That being said, it quickly becomes apparent that knowing these experiences are going to make Minnie grow as a person is like knowing James Bond is going to win at the end. It’s a familiar story with relatively few surprises, but told with beautiful precision and care.
The most common praise thrown at the movie is the fact that it manages to explore its protagonist’s sexuality without exploiting her. Initially, I thought this would be the least we could expect from a movie of this kind. Thinking back to past movies on the subject made me realize how much of an anomaly this kind of treatment is. Think, for example, of Blue is the Warmest Color, and how for all its strengths, the movie couldn’t work past the director’s objectification of its lead character’s sexuality. I had no such concerns with this movie. Yes, there is lots of scenes in which Minnie is either naked of having sex, but they always seem honest about her experience.
This is because the movie is strictly presented from Minnie’s perspective. The “diary” of the title is quite literal, as Minnie records her thoughts in cassette tapes throughout the movie. The first-person perspective is the movie’s biggest asset, and the strongest aspect of Heller’s screenplay. This is the rare movie that not only manages to use narration in an interesting way that complements the narrative, but is actually better for it. Minnie’s commentaries are often hilarious, and always informative about the most detailed aspects of what her mind and body are going through. More often than not, her narration change our perceptions of the scenes she’s commenting on.
It could be easy to judge a teenage character such as fifteen year-old Minnie. Most of us have gone through our adolescent years and can easily recognize whenever she is doing something dumb. The movie, however, shows absolutely no contempt or judgment. Heller’s focused screenplay, and her delicate touch for directing make this a sincere (and successful) attempt to present these events through the lens of Minnie’s mind. Honesty is a rare and honorable quality in a movie, and The Diary of a Teenage Girl has honesty to spare.
Grade: 8 out of 10