San Francisco, the glorious 70s (as you can tell by the high-waist jeans and platform shoes). Minnie (Bel Powley), 15 years old, fringe, big blue eyes, just had sex. And she’s pretty excited about it. Not even the fact that it was with her Mom’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard) casts a shadow on her teenage joy. Now she’s officially an adult. Kinda. As things progress, Minnie becomes aware of her sexual power, general romantic feelings and also of who she is as an artist.
We had Lone Scherfig’s An Education a few years ago, but while Carey Mulligan was the fallen girl at the dirty claws of the married man, Phoebe’ Gloeckner’s graphic novel goes in a very different direction, and actress-made-director Marielle Heller made what is by far one of the best female coming of age stories. It would be easy to make a film about a girl that has fallen in disgrace/sin. It would be easy to make one about abuse, pedophilia, Humbert Humbert lookalikes and manipulative Lolitas. What wasn’t easy is what Heller delivers to us in this passion project of hers- a brutally honest film about female teenage sexuality, with sex scenes that, not being pornified or even erotic – damn, not even having explicit nudity! – exude carnal intimacy in all their splendorous realism. (Something that clearly disturbed the British Board of Film Censors beyond belief and landed an 18 rating to the film – because there’s nothing like a film about true teenage sexuality that teenagers aren’t allowed to see). After years and years of films over films (mostly rated 15) about teenage boys obsessing about sex (or, more precisely, the status that comes from sexual activity), voilá. Girls like sex too, and that doesn’t make them nymphos.
Bet Powler is the perfect casting choice for Minnie. Her big blue eyes and her body awkwardness make her believable in her not a girl, not yet a woman days. She is the one with the agency, and yet she isn’t a Lolita; there’s no manipulation, only a teenage crush that hits home with laid back Monroe. The Diary of a Teenage Girl may well be the beginning of a great career for Powler, and we’ll definitely be watching over. On the other side of the bed, veteran Alexander “Norse God” Skarsgard makes the unthinkable by giving a character that does everything to be hated, the sympathy and understanding of the audience. If there’s an element that stops us from being disgusted by the relation between Minnie and Monroe, it’s the Swedish actor, either by giving the grown ass man a child-like manner, or by actually showing believable feelings for the scrubby naked teenager next to him.
And yet there is so more to the film than itself. From great acid trips, to the animation constant, passing by Kristen Wiig as Mother of the Year Charlotte, whose parental skills include sniffing cocaine with her friends and teenage daughter, and last but not least, Brandon Trost’s cinematography that deservedly won the award at Sundance.
With recognition at Berlin and Edinburgh, The Diary of A Teenage Girl should be compulsory for all girls from 12 up. Its complex take on relationship morale and ethics may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but then, neither are zits or hormonal craziness. Go give it some love, and don’t forget your ID.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is in UK cinemas from 7th August.