An explicit film about a teen who comes of age in the spring of 1976 and has an affair with her mother's boyfriend may be shocking, but what's most shocking about The Diary of a Teenage Girl isn't the fact that he is 35 to her 15 – it's how even-handedly it tells the provocative story. Actor Marielle Heller adapts Phoebe Gloeckner's 2002 autobiographical graphic novel and makes a crystalline, realistic directing debut with powerful material. (She first adapted it for the stage five years ago.)
"I had sex today. Holy shit!" This, Minnie (Bel Powney), confides to her best friend Kimmie after striding, full swagger, across San Francisco back to the apartment where she lives with her single mother, Charlotte, (Kristen Wiig) and younger sister, Gretel.
Instead of the written diary kept in Gloeckner's novel, Minnie confides in a cassette recorder for her daily monologue, starting with how she "made it" with her mother's "main" boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). The immediacy of the page translates to screen with first-person voiceover of her unfiltered point of view. She's in thrall to the hormones she's just discovered and a roiling libido. (A different sort of unreliable narrator.)
Minnie has a certain precocity but is otherwise unaffected and honest, while her bohemian mother displays a laissez-faire approach to parenting: It's a dysfunctional and permissive environment, but one that's not reduced to a 1970s counterculture cliché. The story even manages some empathy for Charlotte, though she's often drunk or getting high around her kids.
Minnie is first driven by unexpected and quizzical lust after Monroe accidentally grazes her breast through her nightgown. With her mother's blessing, they go out and get drunk together and she propositions him. Later she will marvel at the dried blood still under her nails from that first afternoon, when she wrote a scarlet letter on Monroe's skin in her virgin's blood: X marks the spot.
"He's a good guy," Minnie assures her diary. That's not necessarily true, but Heller suggests a psychological ambiguity – Monroe is no monster, and Skarsgard plays him as genuinely conflicted. After their encounter, there are flashes of remorse, but he sticks around despite the stakes because Minnie believes in his dreams, and in a way, that makes him feel youthful and believe in himself again, too.
The film may not be judgmental, but it isn't without commentary – we see, for example, just how much the playfulness and soothing moments between infatuated lovers can resemble those of a parent-and-child relationship. Heller also pointedly shows Minnie taking steps to help her family, like the responsible grown-up figure her life is sorely missing, while Monroe loafs around watching children's television shows and eating cereal.
Early in the movie, as she watches the Patty Hearst liberation news on TV, Charlotte feels empowered, and reflects the debate the movie itself provokes: Was Hearst in control of her circumstances, or a victim? Heller has said that Minnie is a Holden Caulfield for girls, and in a classroom scene where a boy passes her a note, Catcher in the Rye is the book being taught.
Gloeckner's original work was a hybrid of prose and drawings, with flashback panels and sequences of narrative digression.
In Heller's film, animated illustrations are superimposed over scenes to convey Minnie's emotional state and fantasies. At first they're innocent enough, with exploding flowers and fluttering hearts of puppy-love juvenilia, but soon escalate into the stuff of the underground comics she admires. "Does anyone think about fucking as much as I do?" Minnie muses while surveying the other patrons at a comic-book store, while cartoon penises erupt from her imagination and spring out of their pants. "I like sex. I wanna get laid right now." When she and Monroe later drop acid together, Minnie grows rustling, feathered cartoon wings. "I knew it," she says of the imagined independence, before crashing down to earth and finding the enchantment has run its course.
Seldom has teenage sexual awakening been covered from a female perspective – with a fickle alternating confidence, self-doubt and voracious appetite – quite so frankly or delicately. But Heller is never gratuitous – Powley appears naked only when Minnie contemplates herself in the mirror, simultaneously intrigued, emboldened and tentative. It's the underlying discovery and appreciation of her raw sexual desire that feels breathtakingly new because of how candidly it's shared. "I just want to be touched," she says. "I don't know what's wrong with me."
Minnie's nominal high-school boyfriend Ricky is inept and bewildered at the idea of a girl there to do anything except service his entitled needs – as she flips him over and takes an active, assertive role to ensure her own sexual pleasure. He's flustered, if not resentful, and calls her intense. It's not a compliment, and could describe how many will feel about the film. That it's unsettling not just because of the contentious moral context underlines just how radical any realistic depictions of female desire and sexual experience still are.