We’re not short of coming-of-age stories. But the reason that stories of teenagers waking up to their sexuality, making stupid decisions and finding a sense of self have been told and re-told so many times is that adolescence, specifically those few months between teenage-dom and adulthood, are fascinating, unknowable and depict something pretty much everyone has been through one way or the other.
But female coming-of-age stories are harder to come by, in some part because Hollywood has always been a bit shy about showing female sexuality in any way that doesn’t fit the established status quo. Diary Of A Teenage Girl, then, is a bit of an anomaly. Adapted from the graphic novel, Diary Of A Teenage Girl: An Account In Words And Pictures written by Phoebe Gloeckner, and directed by Marielle Heller, it’s a film that doesn’t shy away from the ugly parts.
Minnie (Bel Powley) herself – the protagonist of this tale – doesn’t avoid the unfortunate truths and murky corners of her own story, as she takes up a relationship with her mother’s 35-year-old boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard) and begins to discover things about herself she’d previously only pondered in front of the mirror.
The film doesn’t hold back on its uncomfortable subject matter – within 15-minutes Minnie and Monroe are in a full-blown relationship – but also instantly challenges issues of consent and agency as the 16-year-old in front of us is very clearly shown as the pursuer. But Diary Of A Teenage Girl is not a cautionary tale about young girls getting involved with predatory older men – Monroe is simply a side-note in Minnie’s much bigger story.
Before we even know what’s happening, the first line of the film has a delighted and bemused Minnie telling the audience, “I had sex today.” This type of thing continues in periodic diary entries that display the inner workings of the characters’ mind as she stumbles through experience after experience, trying to figure out which ones make her happy or are even worth her time. There are moments of self-doubt, even self-loathing.
Minnie isn’t necessarily likeable, even if you remember being somewhat like her at that age, but Powley’s honest performance gives her a charm that might not have been there otherwise. Similarly, the adults around her aren’t shamed as objectively bad people, but are instead figures to pity – people she will ultimately grow out of, as they themselves have chosen never to leave adolescence.
“You have a kind of power, you just don’t know it yet,” Kristen Wiig’s Charlotte tells her daughter at one point, and this ultimately sums up a film about a young girl not just discovering that power, but also learning how much to keep for herself. Before she can get to that point, Minnie must navigate the nightmare that has been created by her own urges and feelings, leading her to question just how much control she really has.
Not enough films explore this experience, and even less do it well. The declaration of Minnie’s thoughts and feelings through narration are accompanied by illustrations that add to the visual demonstration of how it feels when everything is new and exciting and terrifying. It contrasts against the rest of the 70s drab that the film wallows in, though more of a focus on Minnie’s interest in the art itself wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Similarly, characters beyond the protagonist are never developed enough. Sure, the story isn’t necessarily about them, but any scene with Minnie’s best friend Kimmie felt superfluous without reason to care about her too, and Wiig’s mother is completely underserved. She’s meant to be absent, but there’s a spoken adoration for her mother that Minnie expresses, despite the audience never really seeing the evidence on-screen.
Most refreshingly, the film is never about Minnie learning from her mistakes, but more about her making sure she emerges on the other side relatively unscathed – a person who recognises herself, and sees the flaws in others. At one point she has a flirtation with a school friend, and an uncomfortable encounter while out at a bar with Kimmie. These things happen simply to show the messy, sometimes upsetting experience of growing up.
It’s a different kind of coming-of-age story, even though it’s a story that has perpetually existed in girls’ lives for countless generations. Like it’s subject matter, it’s messy and sometimes doesn’t always work, but you still find yourself not wanting to fault the end result.
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