After she has sex for the first time, 15-year-old Minnie Goetze (the astonishing Bel Powley) asks her lover to take a Polaroid picture of her, so she can see if she looks any different. Later, we see Minnie making a sketch of her own face as it appears in the photograph, trying to understand and interpret her newfound sexual identity through her budding talents as an artist.
It is a tiny, poignant, effortlessly authentic moment in writer/director Marielle Heller's debut feature The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a film that is replete with such moments. It is also a scene that gets at the heart of what the film is, and what it stubbornly and gloriously refuses to be. A coming-of-age story of sexual and artistic awakening, Diary will almost certainly provoke conversation and controversy: echoing the projections of characters around her, some audience members may see Minnie as a "slut," while others will call her a "victim."
But in a medium (and a culture) that tends to leeringly objectify teen-age girls one moment, and patronizingly censure them the next, Heller's funny, honest film is refreshing and radical for doing neither. It is Minnie's gaze that directs the film. It is her fumbling quest to understand her own power and personhood that drives it. Privileged to observe and overhear, we are free to think whatever we want, but the point of the film—and the source of its extraordinary strength—is its insistence on Minnie's agency, and her right to determine her value and values for herself.
Based on the 2002 book by Phoebe Gloeckner—a frank novelization of her own experiences in prose and pictures—The Diary of a Teenage Girl takes place in San Francisco in 1976. The setting feels key, not just to Minnie's story, but also to the film's desaturated aesthetics, and to its complicated impact. Minnie is coming of age on a post-hippy, pre-punk wave of sexual liberation, casual drugs, and moral ambiguity, and she has few lights to guide her through these turbulent and confusing waters. Her divorced mother Charlotte (a never-better Kristen Wiig) is not so much absent or neglectful as she is narcissistically distracted, caught up in her own partying adventures and treating her two daughters—Minnie, and her nerdy half-sister Gretel (Abby Wait)—with vague, affectionate indifference. Minnie's biological father is apparently long gone, while Gretel's father Pascal (Christopher Meloni)—who likes to think of himself as a father-figure to both girls—is a distant, hilariously disconnected intellectual. (Minnie is so desperate for an adult to guide her that she fantasizes one in the form of Aline Kominsky, the underground comic artist, who appears in the animations Minnie's imagination conjures on-screen.)
And then there's Charlotte's boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), a handsome, 35-year-old deadbeat with entrepreneurial dreams but no real job. It's no wonder that Minnie seizes on Monroe not as a father-figure but simply as the nearest and most convenient male outlet for her sexual curiosity. Minnie is technically the instigator of the affair, but Monroe barely offers even token resistance when Minnie begins focusing her raw and awkward attentions on him. They quickly begin an affair, which occupies the center—though far from the entirety—of Minnie's sexual awakening.
The film's unique strength is in how brilliantly, wittily, and delicately everyone involved navigates these very tricky waters. The affair is clearly a mistake, and—even in '70s San Francisco—it is obviously a crime. But it is never portrayed as a tragedy. Heller writes Monroe—and Skarsgård plays him—less as a sexual predator, and more as an idiot man-child who disastrously lacks morals, boundaries, and self-awareness. Likewise, Minnie is neither a naive child nor a precocious seductress: she is perfectly a hormone-addled adolescent, awkwardly straddling the gap between childhood and adulthood, and trying to figure out who she is and wants to be. Capable of heartbreaking emotional innocence one moment, and ruthless expression of her sexual power the next, Minnie is one of the most achingly authentic teenagers ever captured on-screen. (Bel Powley—a British actress in her early 20s—is just staggeringly good, in a performance that should catapult her to the top of this year's awards lists.) Heller's treatment of this potentially explosive material is playful, sensitive, and wholly authentic to Minnie's experience. The history of cinema is rampant with stories of horny teenage boys, but depictions of young female sexuality—particularly from a female viewpoint—are rare. One as honest and authentic as this one—frank and intimate, without exploitation or admonishment—is something to celebrate.
The real miracle of The Diary of a Teenage Girl is how it manages to be a sexual and artistic Bildungsroman without feeling the need to underline its lessons. Minnie makes many, many terrible decisions, but they don't destroy her life, and in many ways they enhance it. She learns many things—some of them difficult—but she learns them herself, in her own way and time, absorbing wisdom in passing without even necessarily being aware she has done so. ("I think maybe we shouldn't have done that," Minnie says to her friend Kimmie [Madeleine Waters], in amusingly uncertain understatement, after one particularly squalid sexual experiment.) Late in the film, when Minnie finds herself lured by one of her lovers into a drug-fueled, potentially nightmarish scenario, she simply decides to walk away. It is a triumphant moment of good judgment and self-determination that made me want to stand up and cheer for Minnie's growth as a person, but it goes almost entirely unremarked in a film that trusts us—as it trusts Minnie—to figure things out for ourselves.
Minnie is growing up, which The Diary of a Teenage Girl recognizes is a necessarily messy process, involving the freedom to make mistakes, and to learn from them, and to decide for yourself who you want to be. It's the most important thing there is, of course, but it's also just life: it's not that big of a deal.