Teenage sexuality has often been something of a taboo in cinema, a theme that while prevalent in more of a comedic environment, seems to be tiptoed around dramatically, with few pictures truly (and triumphantly) examining the notion of self-discovery, or desire during such formative years, with a level of sincerity and discernment. However The Diary of a Teenage Girl manages just that – as a refreshingly candid, coming-of-age tale that doesn’t play solely for laughs, but offers an insight into the inner workings of a teenage mind. And no matter how long ago it may feel, it’s a mind we had ourselves, once.
Set in 1970s San Francisco, we meet Minnie (Bel Powley). She’s just had sex for the first time, and suddenly everything looks different, and in her mind, nothing more so than herself. She had sex with Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), who just happens to be her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) boyfriend. After this life-changing experience, Minnie is curious as to what else can be achieved, and having entered in to a full-on affair with Monroe, she also starts to indulge in further sexual activities elsewhere, and yet it’s always her mother’s lover who she keeps coming back to.
Importantly, not only are we casting our eye over teenage sexuality, but we’re doing so from the perspective of a girl. More often than not, when sex is explored on screen, it’s done so through the eyes of a man. Be it American Pie, when our protagonists make a pact they’ll have lost their virginity by prom night, or even The 40 Year Old Virgin, Superbad or The Girl Next Door. But it’s different to see it from a woman’s angle, to hear a woman talk about sex, and how it affects and changes her. With male dominated comedies, it’s all about that sense of sexual expectation and adolescent insecurity – but this looks at it from the other side, and proves that sexual desire isn’t solely restricted to just one sex.
That’s not to say it’s completely ignored in cinema – you only need to go back as far as The To Do List or Nymphomaniac to prove that, but it’s certainly something of a rarity. Coincidentally, this Marielle Heller feature shares something in common with the latter, which is that a member of the Skarsgård family performs in a leading role. But it’s Powley who shines, as she completely embodies this character, giving absolutely everything to the cause, with no inhibitions, and a certain charm and presence which makes for such a beguiling protagonist. This is essential where Minnie is concerned, given we need to believe in why men (and women) are so bewitched by her. She’s subtle too, and the way we see her mature across this title, from being a curious virgin to expressing carnal desires, is portrayed naturalistically and in such an understated manner, while remaining so perceptible.
In Powley we have a true star in the making, but she’s been blessed with a nuanced, well-crafted character – stemming from the mind of author Phoebe Gloeckner, and that always helps. As an adaptation this movie works too, though the animated interludes do feel somewhat contrived in parts. Though that being said, the striking explosion of colour that fills the screen makes for an indelible, visceral experience – particularly when attempting to portray the feelings of taking drugs, or losing your virginity in a way that words never quite could. It does feel a little too whimsical however, though thankfully it’s merely a minor irritation in a film that is otherwise quite brilliant.