“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is honest and strong...and refreshingly realistic
Not all movies are comfortable, entertaining experiences. Art reflects reality and reality is often unpleasant. Not everyone will force themselves to look at the more unsavory parts of the world. More often, people cope with what they dislike by ignoring it entirely.
Film is a medium that can bring the hard truths of the world into the light and allow the audience to examine them in a detached venue, then to discuss them in relative safety. Films like 2013’s “The Sacrament” or the more well-known “Requiem for a Dream” are not necessarily enjoyable film experiences, but there’s no denying the quality and commitment to the message.
This year’s “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” isn’t as devastating an experience as those films, but there is a certain amount of discomfort in watching the explicit sexual awakening of a 15-year-old girl in the arms of her mother’s 35-year-old boyfriend.
As young Minnie (Bel Powley) drives down a dangerous road of casual sex and drugs during her wide-eyed and confused youth, the audience sees the experience from her point of view, never breaking from the cringe-inducing seductions or the quiet elations of triumph.
The uniqueness of the film lies in its commitment to the point of view and its disinterest in placating the audience. The filmmakers tell the story with genuine honesty—the viewer is left to their own judgments.
San Francisco in 1976 is a much different place to experience adolescence than small-town Tennessee. The film indicates a very different social structure, one without the rigid rules of sexuality. But then, Minnie’s mother (Kristen Wiig) very much believes in free love and free drugs. Her children appear to be afterthoughts to her own partying lifestyle.
It’s no surprise that Minnie shares some of these same traits, although she appears to be discovering them for herself rather than having them dictated to her. Suffice to say, I didn’t know any girls like Minnie in high school, nor did I meet many like her in college.
However, given what the movie reveals through Minnie’s thoughts and narrations, it’s likely I never knew any girls at all—not in any meaningful way. More than anything, the strength of “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is that it shows teenage girls not as a collective of stereotypes, but as individuals with human motivations and desires.
Why any of this feels like a singular revelation is a mystery, but it does seem as if the audience is being exposed to a world never before seen but altogether familiar. Minnie expresses her desire to belong, to be touched, to be desired, confusing sex with love just as anyone who has ever been alive can identify with and remember.
She uncovers what these feelings mean to her, examines self-worth through the lens of someone else, and discovers that it all comes from the inside anyway.
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is similar in some respects to 2009’s Oscar-nominated bildungsroman-esque “An Education,” which was much more reserved, given its setting and characters. “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is more West Coast; less “The Hollies” and more “Iggy Pop,” exchanging tea and biscuits for cocaine and Quaaludes.
The result is something more philosophical and dangerous. Here the pedophilia isn’t as much about control as it is about freedom without consequences. As I mentioned, the relationship is far more explicit, making the film difficult to watch at times. But because of the focus on Minnie, it’s worthwhile. It seems that every scene could be picked apart in its own article. The performances are all engaging and thought-provoking. The film is simply well done.
Earlier in the week, I overheard a group of teenage boys discussing what “chicks” like and couldn’t help but laugh. It was as if the objects of their desires held weekly meetings to vote on what personality traits they would accept this week.
None of these boys could see that women are not a unified assembly of manufactured parts, but unique individuals with singular interests only revealed through intentional conversation.
Much like Minnie, it’s something they’ll need to discover for themselves. I know a film they could watch that might help them along, though.