I’ve written before that I believe there is something to be said for talking about the people society prefers to avoid acknowledging, and it is a fact that we don’t like to talk about women who openly enjoy sex. Sex itself is a topic that we usually find enormously contentious, and learning that the realities of sexuality often bear little resemblance to our cultural messages about it is one of the messiest and most awkward adventures (or misadventures) a person can have. Diary is a portrait of a real girl working through real lessons in that messy and sometimes awful way that we all must do in life, yet like a public speaker lacking in self-confidence, it seems to shout “Hey! Listen to this!” before mumbling for many minutes and closing with “Love yourself, bye!”
And when I say it shouts “Hey! Listen to this!”, I mean it opens with the line “I had sex today. Holy shit!” Minnie (Bel Powley) is a 15-year-old keeping an audio diary in San Francisco, circa 1974. Her mother (Kristen Wiig) is a flaky librarian who spends her free time drowning in boozeahol and drugs, her sister Gretel (Abby Wait) is a nosy brat, and her crush is her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård, his good looks slain by a bristly mustache). Minnie explores her awakening sexual appetite through her art and a plethora of sex acts, all of which she consents to (as much as a largely ignorant teenager can) and most of which are done with people who are actively taking advantage of her.
Director Marielle Heller clearly picked this up as a passion project, having adapted the screenplay from the graphic novel herself and lovingly crafted every scene, which is impeccably shot. A pleasing light brown washes over the film, giving everything the appearance of an aging polaroid snapshot, driving home the setting. “It was a different time, a different place, and Minnie’s sexual exploration could only have happened here,” the movie suggests, lingering too long on scenes where Minnie’s cartoons are animated before her eyes, pulling us into her imagination. At 102 minutes, you’d think the film would fly by, yet it rolls like slow molasses, accumulating Minnie’s voiceovers and non-objectifying nudity and whatever else lies in its path. The performances are fantastic, and Bel Powley is stunning; if only the movie didn’t seem to drag through Minnie’s nigh tragic life.
It needs to be said, however, that easily the finest aspect of Diary is that it does not pull any punches. Minnie’s mother is a self-absorbed woman who cares about Minnie, but also cannot be bothered to do any real parenting, and the only other person presented as a parental figure demonstrates his caring by pressuring her to fit the mold he has envisioned for her. Minnie’s crushes are an exploitive lesbian using her for sex and drugs, and her mother’s boyfriend, who has that triple whammy of being selfish, possessive, and adept at gaslighting. The film goes out of its way to emphasize both Minnie’s blossoming sexuality and wish to be desired, and her sheer innocence and immaturity in dealing with all associated matters. “This is how real humans act,” the movie states, not particularly caring if it alienates you. How Minnie acts, in particular, has both a startling realism and an alienating quality.
See, the most painfully awkward thing about this flick is not the illicit and incredibly predatory affair, it’s how excruciatingly naïve Minnie is through everything that happens. You get the sense that never at any point does Minnie fully understand what is happening to her, nor does she understand what motivates her. She knows that she wants to be loved and touched and appreciated, and doesn’t understand why people react to her the way they do. She’s vulnerable, and easily used, and as a result gets exploited repeatedly. She feels uncomfortable with some of the sex acts she’s partaking in, but continues to seek them out, never seeming to grasp or even be aware of the concept of boundaries. As she is terrible with social cues and determined to experience life, Minnie makes for a fascinating audience surrogate, yet this causes the audience to vacillate between wanting to protect her and finding her difficult to relate to. Minnie’s behavior doesn’t seem like a 15 or 16-year-old girl; she seems more like a 12-year-old, even less mature than other kids her age but suffocating under a similar amount of insecurity. Minnie is extraordinarily slow to learn from her experiences, even as she repeatedly trips over the stumbling blocks of being an adolescent, just trying to get to know her own body and desires.
As for those desires, the film has a ton to say about sexuality, and female sexuality in particular (which is unsurprising, considering the graphic novel is often referred to as a “semi-autobiography” of author Phoebe Gloeckner). Probably the most poignant point it makes is the struggle between a woman’s desire to express herself sexually and how she often finds herself being regarded as a sexual product to be consumed. Minnie excitedly and wholeheartedly embraces sex, yet she sometimes feels disgusted and disgusting afterwards. She states she feels gross when she and her best friend agree to fellate some boys for fifteen dollars in a public restroom, after strutting to practice her “prostitute walk”. She describes the threesome with her best friend and her mother’s boyfriend as “pornographic”, stating she feels sick about what they did. How to be an independent sexual being? Minnie wonders, when culture tells her that her place sexually is to be pleasing to men, while her mother seems to define herself by how desirable and thus consumable to men she is.
In the end, Minnie seems to learn at least one lesson: she states that it’s not about being loved by others, implying that one must love themselves. This is true, but the fact is that it is also important to be loved by others; we all require support and help from time to time, and the fact that Minnie has so tragically little of this in her life is the elephant in the room stomping on the moral of the story. These relationships require boundaries to be healthy, and Minnie doesn’t seem to have learned that, either. Ignoring this while attempting to wrap the film up in a bow not only feels trite, it actually cheapens the rest of an otherwise beautifully crafted film. The Diary Of A Teenage Girl is determined to turn its entangled series of events into a lesson, and while it can be credited for facing these events unflinchingly, the fact is that the lesson remains incomplete, leaving the film a little hollow.Liked This? Share It!