‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’ Gets Adolescent Sexuality Right

“I had sex today!” proclaims Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) as she traipses through San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on platform shoes in “Diary of a Teenage Girl.”

The year is 1976. Minnie, an aspiring artist, is 15. Her lover, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), is 35. He happens to be Mom’s boyfriend.

To the degree that a 15-year-old is a consenting adult, their sex is consensual, one of the many polarizing plotlines in Marielle Heller’s perceptive movie based on the graphic 2003 novel by Phoebe Gloeckner.

I had conflicting reactions. As the mother of a teenage daughter, I experienced considerable agitation. As a onetime teenage girl, I recognized the messy, inappropriate, envelope-pushing, boundary-crossing truths of adolescent sexuality. (Is she being exploited? Yes. Is she in control of her own body? Yes. But this is no “Lolita.”) And as a film critic, I knew how few movies view sex from the perspective of a female teen; even fewer resist imposing the man-made double binds of silly virgin/stupid skank or hottie and nottie.

Heller approaches the material matter-of-factly and nonjudgmentally, enabling viewers to form their own opinions about Minnie’s formative experiences. Making her directorial debut, Heller knows that defining moments can define us for good or for ill. Minnie traverses the teenage tunnel of Hell and makes it back into the light, along the way learning that sex is many things, among them power and pleasure.

Because of its subject matter, the film rises and falls on the talents of Powley, 23. In attitude rather than looks, this Brit import recalls the young Judy Davis. With translucent eyes and brass enough for an entire concert band, Powley plays Minnie with exuberant energy and crushing self-doubt, revealing that, for instance, “I was afraid to pass up a chance at sex because I might not get another.”

Like the film’s source material, which combines conventional narrative with comix panels, “Diary” utilizes Minnie’s expressive cartoons to amplify her feelings of elation and lust and confusion. (Minnie’s art is in the Twisted-Sisters style of her heroine, artist Aline Kominsky, the spouse of R. Crumb. In other words, it is anatomically, if not always politically, correct.) The film’s suggestive cinematography has the look of slightly faded 1970s Kodachromes, where tomato reds have aged to rusty browns.

Where is Mom (Kristen Wiig) while Minnie disports herself with Monroe in his apartment or dictates her diary into a tape recorder? Mom is working, partying, sharing with Minnie what a “hot piece” she was when she was Minnie’s age. In other words, unconsciously competing with her daughter in an Oedipal contest that Minnie has already won.

Threaded through the story are news reports about Patty Hearst, the heiress kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army who joins its cause. When Mom, referring to Hearst’s Stockholm syndrome, asks “What kind of person falls in love with the person who kidnaps them?” she might as well be referring to Minnie’s sexual thrall to Monroe.

And what is Monroe thinking? Or thinking with? Not his brains, clearly. He is one of those male sleeping beauties drifting through life, awakened occasionally by sex, but unaccountable to anyone. He’s an unpremeditated predator, a spiritual cousin of the mother who deflowers her 14-year-old son in “Murmur of the Heart.”

Minnie is too unformed to understand that sex is no substitute for what she needs, which is parental attention. Bio-Dad is out of the picture. Former stepdad Pascal (Christopher Meloni), a pompous intellectual, lives in New York and genuinely cares about her, but he is not there for her. Mom, who is, is not always present, leaving Minnie to self-medication and sexual experimentation.

Though there is much exposed skin and many sex scenes, the film is not particularly erotic. Heller takes care neither to objectify nor glamorize her characters, all the better to understand them. To quote that philosopher Madonna, what Heller and Powley achieve is to show what it’s like for a girl. How empowering it is to choose a partner rather than wait to be chosen, how empty it feels to have empty sex. How healthful it is to have a creative outlet that advances self-knowledge.

Too many teen sex movies confuse loss of virginity with onset of adulthood. How many of them, like “Diary,” is about the loss of virginity and ultimate gaining of wisdom?

I am happy to add it to the very short list of movies in which girls learn about sex without being shamed or objectified, a list that includes “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Clueless,” “Love and Basketball,” “Pariah” and “The To Do List.”

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