“I had sex today. Holy shit!” Bouncing around in slow-motion bliss, young San Francisco teen Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) ruminates on a new realm of pleasure that has just opened up to her. She then proceeds to tell us about her conquest: It turns out it’s her own mother’s (Kristen Wiig) boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård, in the kind of role usually reserved for Peter Sarsgaard). But, incredibly, writer-director Marielle Heller’s film doesn’t ask that we be scandalized by this revelation. Rather, it’s Minnie’s gateway to the wonders of sex and freedom.
The first thing to know about The Diary of a Teenage Girl is that young British actress Powley is staggeringly good in it. Earlier this year, after the film’s packed premiere at Sundance, it seemed clear to pretty much everyone in the audience that this unknown, who got the part off an audition tape, had become one the festival’s genuine stars. (Her co-stars Wiig and Skarsgård are also excellent, it should be noted — but really, the day is Powley’s.) The attention and acclaim are warranted. Powley is asked to do a lot here. Based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel, the film charts Minnie’s journey from shy teen to unapologetic hedonist, and the actress’s very physical presence seems to transform. Her wide eyes go from tense to questioning to hungry; her collapsed posture starts to betray real confidence, even drive. She grows up before our eyes.
Meanwhile, she and Skarsgård have naked, naked sex all over the place. The movie lets us laugh at it, even though we know it’s totally wrong. It even lets us — gasp — accept it on some level. (It probably also helps that the year is 1976.) “Is this what it feels like to have somebody love you?” Minnie thinks, sitting in the bath, post-coitus, dumbfounded. “Somebody wants me.” She still can’t believe it. Her awe is sweet, but also a little heartbreaking. It speaks to that moment — universal, on some level — when the shivers of pleasure and human connection start to overcome the many petty shames of adolescence.
There’s little that’s actually new in Diary of a Teenage Girl. We’ve seen this "way-too-young girl with an older man" scenario many times before, in Lone Scherfig’s An Education, Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, and countless other films. Minnie is an aspiring cartoonist, and the film occasionally presents her thoughts as little surreal, animated reveries; even these hark back to similarly offbeat films like What If and Look Both Ways.
What is new is the earthiness that Heller and her young lead bring to Minnie’s experimentations with sex and drugs. She enjoys sex. She enjoys the power it gives her. And as Minnie finds herself going further and further into this world of pleasure and abandon, the film largely steers clear of scolding or moralizing. Even as we recognize that her adventures probably won’t end well, we can understand their pull, and even their necessity. Let this girl have her moment, the film seems to say, and make her mistakes. There’s plenty of time left to grow up.