“I had sex today. Ho-ly shit.” So says Minnie, the hero of The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Director Marielle Heller’s adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner trailblazing novel is faithful, and not to a fault, either: Heller cuts from the source material where it meanders, and keeps Minnie’s unique, despairing point of view intact. It would be misleading to call the film a black comedy, although Diary bears a passing semblance to the work of Todd Solondz, one of the few American filmmakers who consistently dares his audience to laugh. The diary confounds and disturbs in equal measure, and it would be borderline intolerable without Minnie’s deadpan honesty about her sex life.
Bel Powley stars as Minnie, a precocious fifteen year old who lives in San Francisco in the mid-1970s. Her first sex partner is Monroe (a fearless Alexander Skarsgård), the thirty-five year old boyfriend of her mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig). They both know their clandestine fucking is wrong, yet Minnie continues because, well, she’s insatiable and thinks it means she’s now an adult. Heller follows Minnie as her life spirals out of control, filming with empathy, not judgment. The cinematography has little color, as if the film looks like a faded photograph, so the only vibrant splashes are when we Minnie’s drawings come to life (she wants to become a cartoonist). Minnie continues experimenting with sex, alcohol, and drugs, and her only confidant Kimmie (Madeleine Waters) is just as crazed as she is. Her endless haze starts to lose its appeal, yet Monroe has a manipulative streak Minnie has little capacity to understand.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl has no interest in irony or disaffection. It plunges us into Minnie’s mindset, and it is enthralling since the camera provides a necessary dose of objectivity; in other words, we care for Minnie since we understand her mistakes better than she does. The film internalizes that, yes, sex obsesses some teenagers (if not most of them). The mix of desire and inexperience leads to a series of impasses between Minnie and Monroe, and while some of them are droll in a deadpan way, most combine innocence with creepiness that’s off-putting and melancholy. Some people may find it difficult to sit through The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which would be a shame since few films are this unabashed about common desire.
Given the subject matter and that we see Minnie nude, I should point out that Powley is twenty-three year old. Still, Powley’s large eyes and awkward gait mean she’s wholly convincing as a teenager. The device of the diary also adds to the credibility, and Heller wisely substitutes a written diary for audio recordings. The other actors, Wiig and Skarsgård in particular, veer between responsibility and apathy, and Heller’s script blurs the line in a convincing way. Part of her success is the setting: casual sex and drug use was more common back then, so of course there would be non-judgmental moments where Monroe and Charlotte get fucked up with her children in full view. No one is happy in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and the only thing that saves Minnie is her curiosity. The adults self-medicate because they have few options left, which is a sneaky of way of giving Minnie’s trajectory a dim ray of hope.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is the antithesis of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, another literary adaptation that had its debut at Sundance this year. While Dying Girl indulges the narcissism of its banal, disaffected caricatures, Diary is more about how many teenagers lust for experience, even when they do not understand its consequences. Dying Girl cynically introduces cancer into its plot so that the audience will feel more feelings, while Diary understands that everyday teenagers can be dramatic enough.
Indeed, Gloeckner based her novel on her own life: the most recent edition of The Diary of a Teenage Girl includes actual notes from her actual diary, including how she would regularly have sex with an older man. Gloeckner does not flinch when she looks backward, trusting that adults and precocious kids can identify with Minnie without any additional melodrama. Minnie ends the film with reserves of self-respect she did not know she had, and no life-changing catalyst gets her there. Heller and her actors realize most kids are fucked up, one way another, and the kids will be all right because maturity tilts that way. Here is a frank, disarming film that never condescends to its characters, or the audience by extension. This kind of respect shouldn’t be rare.