|Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgård in The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015).|
In 2003, the movie Thirteen, written by fledgling actress Nikki Reed (Twilight) and Catherine Hardwicke garnered critical acclaim for its bold, provocative portrayal of the seedy secret lives of early teens experimenting with drugs, sex, and alcohol. While films like American Pie (1999) offered a frank but socially acceptable look at the first sexual forays of young men, Thirteen followed the trajectory for exploring budding sexuality in young girls set by a long history of grim, moralizing tales from Samuel Richardson’s 1748 novel, Clarissa, to Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2013). Although still largely regarded as one of the more honest and realistic glimpses into what teens are up to behind closed doors, Thirteen did nothing new for women’s sexuality or autonomy – it reminded us, as stories have told us since time immemorial, that young women who give in to sexual desire, who dare to experiment with sex or drugs, are opening the door to a world of victimhood, shame, and regret.
Tackling almost exactly the same subject matter as Harwicke’s Thirteen, Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl differs only in setting, critical buzz, and, most importantly, tone. Adapted from a semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, the 2015 film offers a candid and refreshing story of a teen girl’s incredibly messy first sexual experiences growing up in 1970s San Francisco. Minnie Goetz (newcomer Bel Powley) is a 15-year-old who likes drawing (the film is embellished with 70s-inspired, Monty Python-esque comic drawings from Minnie’s imagination), doesn’t love school, and lives in a cozy, liberal household with her free spirit mother (Kristen Wiig), gawky but adorable little sister, Gretel (Abby Wait), and any number of mom’s party friends who’ve come to crash for the night. After he accidentally grazes her boob with his hand, mom’s handsome underachiever boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård, complete with bell-bottoms and porn-star mustache) becomes the object of Minnie’s overwhelming teenage lust. The two embark on an ill-advised affair behind her mother’s back which Minnie chronicles in an audio diary comprised of a series of unmarked cassette tapes carelessly strewn about her bedroom. Naturally, Minnie’s sexual awakening via Monroe leads her to satisfy her curiosity about a slew of other taboo subjects which she also records for posterity, alongside her musings about standard 15-year-old topics like whether or not losing her virginity makes her look different, if paramour Monroe masturbates thinking about her, and, less directly, about the complex and often confusing overlap between a good lay and actual love. The diaries, like Minnie, are unreserved and unashamed; her voice is clear, direct, and distinct while being unmistakably teenage.