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The quietly radical Diary of a Teenage Girl turns the page on coming-of-age films

Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgård play the central characters of The Diary of a Teenage Girl. They're trapped in a doomed, terrible, predatory relationship.
Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgård play the central characters of The Diary of a Teenage Girl. They're trapped in a doomed, terrible, predatory relationship.
Sony Pictures Classics
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

A teenager, curious about the world, is ushered into sexual maturity by someone much older, someone who should have more of a protective, paternal relationship with them. Through the experience, they hit several emotional lows, but also learn important lessons about themselves. The relationship falls apart — because it has to — but the long work of self-discovery goes on.



That's a story that's propped up hundreds of novels and movies over the years. But most of those stories have been about teenage boys, finding themselves enraptured with a woman who's either an adult or from some other social strata entirely (neatly encapsulated in Billy Joel's seminal classic "Uptown Girl"). How often have we seen this story about a young woman, much less seen it in a story where her embrace of her sexuality is treated without apology, as something completely natural and important?

Phoebe Gloeckner's 2002 graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl and writer-director Marielle Heller's terrific new film adaptation do just that, following a teenager named Minnie through 1970s San Francisco, as she finds herself enraptured and eventually seduced by her mother's boyfriend, Monroe. Along the way, she deals with family, friends, and the other usual hallmarks of growing up.

Minnie and Monroe's relationship is, on every level, a terrible idea, but in charting its growth and eventual destruction, both Gloeckner and Heller examine what it means to be a young woman, conscious of her sexuality but also trying to keep it from being the business of anyone but herself.

Diary captures the way young women feel about their bodies — and are made to feel about them by society

Bel Powley in Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Bel Powley plays Minnie as a girl who's just figuring out so many things about herself.

Sony Pictures Classics

Pay attention to how Heller shoots Minnie (played by the remarkable newcomer Bel Powley) throughout this film. Even though the character is occasionally naked and often sizing up her various body parts in a mirror, there's nothing sexual about the way she regards herself. Instead, Heller's approach remains almost clinical.

Heller shoots these various pieces of Minnie's body almost in isolation, as if the girl is wondering just how she matches up to other women out there. Minnie, at times, seems as if she's unable to see herself as a whole person but, rather, as a collection of parts that either do or don't match up to some ideal. When the film invites us into Minnie's point of view, it's usually so we can understand how she's unhappy with her body — or thrilled to find that it can be used to turn on the men in her life.

That choice, Heller told me, was designed to reflect the reality of growing up as a young woman in the United States. "I think as a society, we're just a little bit afraid of teenage girls, and we're definitely afraid of their sexuality," Heller said. "There's a desire to shelter girls and also to ignore what they might be feeling or experiencing. The result of that is if you're a teenage girl who's having thoughts about sex, you think something's wrong with you."

The film is filled with animated sequences from the pages of Minnie's diary. (Though fictional, Minnie, an amateur cartoonist, is a semi-autobiographical riff on Gloeckner herself.) In many of them, Minnie strides about the city, her legs too long or her thighs too thick. These sequences and the ones where the girl regards herself in the mirror explain why a girl like her might feel as if her body were not up to par subtly and more effectively than any speech about body positivity could.

Minnie is a smart, talented girl who has no trouble getting boys — both her own age and much older — to be interested in her. By showing how unaware she is of all of this, the film neatly shows why she's so desperate to win Monroe's affections.

This is the rare movie about a teenage love affair that doesn't demonize anyone

Alexander Skarsgård and Kristen Wiig in Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Alexander Skarsgård plays the desperate, lonely Monroe, while Kristen Wiig plays Minnie's mother.

Sony Pictures Classics

In the film, Monroe (played by a desperately skeezy Alexander Skarsgård) is clearly in the wrong for sleeping with Minnie. Heller is very clear-eyed about his failures as the adult in the situation and how he is guilty of things far worse than bad judgment for sleeping with his girlfriend's teenage daughter.

But the film also doesn't demonize Monroe for what he does. It's wrong, but it's also something that stems from something human. The character is a mess, who seems incapable of being comfortable with what he has, instead always looking for something new.

"It was a goal that he couldn't just be a predator," Heller told me. "Minnie doesn't feel victimized for most of the story, so we shouldn't feel like she's being victimized. This is an abusive relationship, where he's taking advantage of her, but like most abusive situations, it's not so black and white where there's a virginal victim and a predator. There's a much more complex relationship at the heart of it, that has to do with confusion and love and the era."

On some level, Monroe knows that adult men aren't supposed to sleep with teenage girls, and what Heller is interested in is just what causes that barrier to come tumbling down. At the center of Diary is the idea that people often don't do the thing they're supposed to — whether big or small — and all of the justifications they come up with for the things they actually do.

The film lives in the gap between the "should do" and the "actually did," and nowhere more so than in its central relationship. Minnie keeps getting drawn back into Monroe's orbit because she's young and a little thrilled by the illicitness. Monroe can't escape because he's not strong enough to do the correct thing, but though the movie understands his weakness, it neither condemns nor condones him for it.

This is a movie that finds the universal in the specific

Minnie in her bedroom in The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Minnie's bedroom shows off the film's vaguely nostalgic vibe.

Sony Pictures Classics

Perhaps Diary's most revolutionary act is the way that it suggests that the story of a teenage girl should be just as universally worthy of our empathy as all of those stories about teenage boys we've seen over the years.

Minnie's story takes place in a very specific milieu — 1970s San Francisco — and is peppered with the kinds of incidents that feel ripped from real life (as when Minnie's stepfather returns and tries to badger the women once in his life into paying attention to him). But in that specificity, it attains the universality the best coming-of-age stories manage to find.

We've all been teenagers, and we've all made stupid decisions while at that age. We're not so very far removed from Minnie after all. We're also all adults who sometimes feel lost and confused — making us not so very far removed from Monroe or Minnie's mother, loath as we might be to admit that.

Cinematographer Brandon Trost shoots the film through seeming filters of hazy sun, giving everything a deceptive nostalgic warmth. That gives the film the sense of being not just Minnie's memory but the memory of everybody who's ever looked at a childhood photo and realized how long ago and far away that world seems to be now.

"We talked about it a bit like a faded picture, to give it a feeling of a little bit of nostalgia," Heller told me. "But we never wanted it to feel like it was going into hipsterland either. It needed to be authentic to the '70s."

Diary meanders here and there, particularly when it seems to be actively avoiding its most powerful material, but even in that weakness, it captures some of the feeling of life as it's really lived. The film is quietly radical not because it dares to rattle cages so much but because it doesn't. This is a story of huge emotions and big moments, told via intimate gestures and tiny power shifts. It's a gem.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is playing all around the country. Find out if it's playing in your area here.

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