At 15 I thought I was a pervert. This may be why I loved Diary of a Teenage Girl so much. My sophomore year of high school I made my grandmother, a woman uncomfortable with the word “vagina” take me to the pediatrician I was still seeing to discuss my “sex addiction.” When the middle-aged doctor, whose next oldest patient was 10, asked me to explain exactly what was wrong I told her, “I can’t stop touching myself, everything turns me on.” That’s right folks, I was masturbating more than I was doing anything else, including eating, doing homework, or hanging out with friends. It had become a “problem.” But the physician just laughed at me, told me it was normal for teenagers and sent me home with a lollipop that surely aroused me further. Minnie, played by Bel Powley, would have understood.
The film starts with a close-up on a 15 year-old’s ass in highwaisted bellbottoms. She’s just had sex and it has blown her mind. Sure, she’s not particularly attractive, or at least that’s what she tells us. But she’s young and daring and horny, and that’s what matters! Do you know what it’s like being a teenage girl? Sometimes it’s like being Minnie in Diary of a Teenage Girl. Sometimes the attention of men, particularly older men, fills you with a false sense of power. Yes, I am attractive. Yes, someone wants me. Yes, I am worthy.
Diary takes place in 1970’s San Francisco. Minnie is growing up in a single parent household where drugs and alcohol are readily available and discussions of gender, sex, and race are just as uncomfortable (for the present day viewer) as you might imagine. She’s a lazy student, a talented artist, a bit of a loner, and is excited by sex. She’s a normal teenager in so many respects. And then she sleeps with her mom’s boyfriend Monroe, played by Alexander Skarsgård. The story of their first encounter is drawn out over her dictations to her casette recorder. “He’s attracted to my youth,” she says. Yes, this can be seen as disgusting. Yes, it is upsetting that a man in his thirties is attracted to his girlfriend’s 15 year-old daughter.
But the movie does something few other movies about this same thing have done, it gives room for Minnie’s story, for her authentic experience. She thinks she has seduced him, that she continues to do so, throughout the movie. She practices looking and acting sexy for him and is amazed and surprised when he responds. But she’s still allowed to be a teenage girl who doesn’t quite get romance, or the complexities of sex, or the danger (physically, emotionally, whatever) that she’s putting herself in. She is not Lolita, not painted as a tiny nymph seducing a sick man. She’s a horny teenage girl who resents and loves her mother, who feels abandoned by many different men in her life, and who wants to get off. Once she’s lost her virginity she is curious about other men, other sexual experiences. She worries that others see her as a “nympho,” but that idea also thrills her. I wasn’t a sex addict, and neither is she. Teenage girls like getting it on sometimes.
Fifteen is a terrible age. Do you remember it? The desires of the body and the desires of the mind almost never align. And everyone around you has opinions about you, your body, what you should be doing. Minnie’s entire circle is obsessed with her growing sexual life. Her mother, played by Kristen Wiig, is at a loss for how to treat her, how to love her, whether or not to touch her. Her little sister thinks she’s a slut. The man most active in her life is supposed to fulfill a stepfather role, but is sleeping with her and claiming she has power over him. Her best friend is interested in shaming her decisions, but also being involved in some of the more “questionable” sexual experiments.
The adults don’t offer guidance. The man most interested, seemingly, in her well-being is her ex-stepfather, her younger sister’s biological father, who lives across the country, sends money once in a while, and is disappointed by Minnie’s lack of interest in school. Her manchild lover Monroe barely has his own life together. Skarsgård was the perfect casting decision for this character. His portrayal of Monroe is of a man lacking in maturity, direction, or strong sense of self. At times he seems almost of comparable age to Minnie. Plus, as an audience it is easier to watch the creepy older man when the creepy older man is very easy on the eyes. You can imagine Minnie really feeling desire for him, and that confuses the power dynamic.
The whole movie is also the evolution/translation of a graphic novel into film. And it works beautifully. Throughout the movie we watch Minnie’s daydreams turn into curlicues and hearts and butterflies around her face, her lovers’ faces, the streets around her. The bathroom overgrows with houseplants. Her first comic comes to life. Her correspondence with Aline Kominsky becomes animated and instructive. None of it reads as cheesy. It’s not even gimmicky, but cute like Scott Pilgrim. It seems natural, like we’re sitting in her head.
Diary of a Teenage Girl is for the weird, slightly-deviant teenage girl left inside of you. The one who watched porn for the first time and felt excited and cool and in-charge when all your friends thought it was disgusting and weird. Or pretended to. It’s a movie about false power and real empowerment. About finding bits of yourself and of love even in the messiest situations. It’s a movie about growing up white and middle class and lonely in 1970’s San Francisco, and it’s about none of that. It’s pretty simple really, it’s sex.