The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) — Image via sonyclassics.com

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Directed by Marielle Heller (2015)

In college I came across the following words written by the poet and essayist Adrienne Rich:

Women have always lied to each other.
Women have always whispered the truth to each other.
Both of these axioms are true.

Women have always been divided against each other.
Women have always been in secret collusion.
Both of these axioms are true.

It was an important moment in my intellectual development, as it was the first time I encountered the idea, so succinctly articulated by Rich, that multiple and even conflicting realities could and did coexist. It wasn’t my job, I realized, to walk through life labeling experience as right or wrong, true or untrue. It was, rather, my job to acknowledge the moral ambiguities inherent in complexity.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) — Image via sonyclassics.comAs I left the theater after viewing Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015), Rich’s words immediately sprung to mind. The film, based on a 2002 graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, details the sexual awakening of fifteen-year-old Minnie Goetz (Bel Powley), who comes of age in the bohemian San Francisco of the 1970s. The film has been lauded for its frank and unflinching portrayal of teenage sexual curiosity, and its treatment of the subject is direct, unromanticized, and — for someone who spends a large portion of her day with teenage girls — terrifying.

My terror stems, I believe, from what Rich observes about coexisting (but not always complimentary) realities. Diary presents a world in which Minnie is genuinely in love with her mother’s thirty-five-year-old boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). Or at least she thinks she is, which amounts to the same thing. Their relationship is both creepy and genuine, sympathetic at times, but also wholly wrong. The film doesn’t dwell on this wrongness, however. In fact, it does a notable job of avoiding any overarching narrative voice of morality. This is a voice that the viewer might feel relieved to hear once in awhile, but Heller was probably correct not to compromise the film’s intensity by softening the general unease that most viewers will feel as the sex scenes between Minnie and Monroe reach a pornographic pitch.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) — Image via sonyclassics.comWhile the young girl/older man pairing is nothing new in film or literature, Diary tells the story entirely from Minnie’s perspective, and while this is an admirable reversal of the norm, it serves to make the story that much more unsettling. This isn’t a film centered around some pervert’s fantasy about being solicited by a teenage nymphet; it’s a film about Minnie’s uncoerced and freely given desire. While Monroe, because of his gender and age, holds more power and knowledge than Minnie by default, the viewer is never led to believe that Minnie is acting against her will, even while the film takes pains to show how her will is influenced by the social forces that surround her.

Minnie herself is a study in Richian reality. While she regularly acts her age, as evidenced by her bouts of whining and giggle-laced horseplay, she also continually seeks pleasure not just with Monroe but with boys from school, strangers at bars, and girls from the local underground drug scene.

She is a child.
She is a sexual being.
Both of these axioms are true.

Similarly, we see Minnie exude self-assured contentment as she creates worlds in her sketch books and diary, while, a scene later, she frets over her weight and general appearance.

She is confident.
She lacks all confidence.
Both of these axioms are true.

The list of co-existing contradictions is a long one, and what emerges is essentially a startingly honest depiction of teenagehood’s liminality, its predication on a constantly-vacillating series of uncertainties.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) — Image via sonyclassics.comWhile the seemingly impenetrable muddiness of teenage identity is Diary’s main focus, the film does feature a transformation amidst the quagmire. Minnie, who starts the film desperate for male attention, eventually decides that, unlike her mother (Kristen Wiig), she does not need outside validation to feel like a worthwhile person. This realization is partially made possible through the joy she gets from her art, but it is also the result of her experiences with Monroe and with Tabatha (Margarita Levieva), a junkie who is easily as exploitative of Minnie as is Monroe. At some point during these and other not-so-ideal experiences, Minnie learns self-reliance, and although the film doesn’t develop a great amount of detail surrounding her transformation, which comes rather suddenly, it suggests the beginning of Minnie’s journey towards becoming the kind of person she would like to be.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is not only a bravely unsentimental bildungsroman; it also highlights the discomfort that has always surrounded the desirous woman, something that Minnie’s art playfully engages as she draws several comics featuring skyscraper-sized women who consume everything in their path, appetite personified. Although we don’t know what type of woman Minnie will become and what her sexual self will eventually look like, the fact that she learns so much about herself in such a short period of time is reason for hope. While Diary’s final scenes, which feature Minnie dancing on a sun-drenched beach with her younger sister, Gretel (Abby Wait), might feel like a too-tidy gloss over the many struggles that populate the film, the viewer is left believing that while everything may not always run smoothly for Minnie, she has, through the experiences we’ve witnessed, developed the resilience necessary to keep confronting her contradictions with heart, head, and body at the ready.

Published by

Emily Anderson

is completing her Ph.D. in English at the University of Minnesota. She teaches literature and writing at several local educational institutions.