A different kind of teen movie, an honest look at a girl’s sexual awakening
It is mildly depressing that while humanity has been able to collectively solve many issues over the past centuries, there are certain life experiences that each must still go through on their own, as helpless and confused as they may be. While The Diary of a Teenage Girl has a cliché-sounding title, it is actually an involving dramedy concerned with the loss of virginity and the difficult passage into adulthood.
Just as movies for, and about, teenagers have sunk low in the last decade with the advent of the commercially-minded “young adult” genre, three independent films this year have reminded us that a genuine look at that age group is still possible—they are Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which explores friendship, Dope, which explores racial identity, and The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which explores sex. All three, as any movie about teenagers intrinsically is, are coming-of-age stories. I would strongly recommend these three to any person in their late teens as an alternative to the latest fanfiction, poor man’s dystopia or schmaltzy romance—not to name any names.
This film is set in 1976 San Francisco and is coloured like an old photograph of the era. In fact, by its structure, it can be compared to the Polaroid card 15-year-old Minnie asks to have taken of her right after she’s had sex for the first time—for the whole film, we watch her life slowly come into focus through funny, tough, and all-around weird experiences. She is at the centre of the film, recording her rambunctious thoughts on a tape recorder, so when we hear her voice-over narration, it’s not being read from paper—the viewer is listening to the voice recordings she makes. Like many people who keep diaries, she starts hers from a half-conscious desire to be heard, so you shouldn’t feel too bad about listening in.
Minnie is played by Bel Powley, a newcomer who infuses her character with endearing and sometimes scary naiveté, but also a confidence that is odd for a character who thinks so little of herself—Marie Heller, a first-time filmmaker, is equally confident in her directing. It’s that confidence that ultimately gets Minnie “laid” when she flirts with her mother’s boyfriend and manages to seduce him. At first, she is thrilled, and proudly informs her tape recorder that she is now officially an adult—this is the line that opens the film.
Powley is yet another in a long list of young new British actors who are more convincing as an American than most Americans are. She mostly recalls Giulietta Masina in The Nights of Cabiria for her wide-eyed look and hopefulness that is entirely misplaced in an environment that wants to suck all life out of her. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is often disturbing in ways that the main character is not aware of, and that’s why these passages are portrayed in a mostly positive light, as they are seen through Minnie’s lack of experience. While this film doesn’t have the combination of mystery and sexuality of a Gregg Araki film—for some reason, it seems like Minnie always has it all figured out—it is terrifically cast and introduces you to another lovely actress in a way that shows how much she has yet to give.