“I had sex today. Holy shit.” 15-year-old Minnie beams in the early morning sun’s glow as her bellbottom cuffs flap by her ankles. It’s 1976 in San Francisco as Minnie speaks into her cassette tape recorder, and consequentially to us in voiceover, because she, “just needs to tell someone about it.” Minnie (Bel Powley) is the eldest of two daughters whose mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) spends most nights snorting cocaine or leaning drunkenly on the shoulder of a friend. Many times that friend is her 35-year-old boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Sakrsgård), the man who her daughter Minnie sleeps with in order to lose her virginity.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is the stylish feature debut of writer/director Marielle Heller, which she adapts from Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel of the same name. Heller also once adapted and starred in a production of Diary on stage, so she comes to the film having lived with the material for many years, and it shows.
The movie’s general coming-of-age plot shouldn’t feel unfamiliar to the average filmgoer: a young girl’s experimentation with sex leads her to increasingly illicit activities. Yet, The Diary of a Teeange Girl is pleasantly different through its honest portrayal of Minnie, and the hopefulness of a teenager that gets instilled into the movie. “It felt so good to imagine he might be thinking about me,” she says at one point.
Relative newcomer Bel Powley plays Minnie. The 23-year-old Brit is just wide-eyed and puffy enough to believably describe herself as unattractive. Her beauty, or perhaps lack of it, is a preoccupation for Minnie. When she firsts sleeps with Monroe, she seems to concede in voiceover that he’s only attracted to her youth. Minnie stands naked in front of a mirror reassuring herself about the size of her breasts with a type of self-critical perspective that is rarely articulated properly.
There’s an authenticity to the observations that feels as if it could have only come ripped from Gloeckner’s own diary entries, maybe even underlined by elements of Heller or Powley’s own experiences. Minnie’s words are reflections of a thoughtful outsider who has deeply considered her situation but lacks the real world experience to see the full picture. “Is this what love feels like? Somebody wants me.”
Minnie’s mostly optimistic outlook makes it easy to get invested in her story. Powley brings brightness to the character, and the story moves with such vigor that the youthful energy becomes contagious. Much like Minnie does, you get swept up in the excitement of her sexual awakening. Even as she makes clearly misguided choices, you want them to work out for her anyway. But when Minnie is flirting in Monroe’s arm and Charlotte arrives home, he literally drops her.
While Charlotte slumps on the couch, a couple of early scenes play with news reports on Patty Hearst in the background. Hearst is, of course, the famous 1974-kidnapping victim who was then brainwashed into supporting the groups responsible for her treatment, and the movie seems to suggest that like Hearst, these characters are also in love with what’s keeping them imprisoned.
Charlotte is perpetually in a state of questionable sobriety and Monroe seems stuck in the relationships he exploits, and with the people to which he ultimately becomes attached. Minnie’s captor is love. Not the love she has, but rather the one she wants. The love that 15-year-old girls dream up. “What kind of person falls in love with the people who kidnapped them?” her mother asks.
What helps make Minnie someone worth cheering for is that sex isn’t something that happens to her in the movie, but rather something she chooses for herself. While Minnie may act childish at times, The Diary of a Teenage Girl never quite judges her for her naiveté. She may be sleeping with a man much older than her, but Minnie is the relationship’s instigator throughout. When Minnie slips further into a life that resembles a sadder version of her mother’s, she pulls herself out of her trance and returns to reality. “You have a power, you just don’t know it yet,” Monroe tells her one night after they’ve slept together.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl should become a favorite of teenage girls everywhere, but its merits will be felt far beyond that narrow demographic. This is a funny, positive depiction of how teenagers can come to terms with adult responsibilities. It’s neither a glossy representation nor a youth-gone-wrong horror story. Heller’s debut as a director feels genuine. It’s also particularly well-acted by both Wiig and Sakrsgård (as well as Christopher Meloni’s charming cameo); however, Powley’s stunning performance is the one that really guides this story, as Minnie’s journey to become secure with herself is both hysterical and genuinely emotional, resulting in a heartfelt story told with a distinctive, unique voice.
Neither a glossy representation nor a youth-gone-wrong horror story, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is both hysterical and genuinely emotional; a heartfelt story told with a distinctive, unique voice.