“Alienation is good for your heart.”
Watching The Diary of a Teenage Girl feels intrusive. As if we snuck into the theater, with a world unfolding onscreen that was never supposed to be seen. We sink down, peering over the tops of the next row’s headrest, unable to look away from the people and events not meant for our eyes. In the progressive and free-wheeling exploits of 1976 San Francisco, our story follows a definitive time in the life of a 15 year-old girl. Most would label this film as coming of age, a genre classification I refuse to acknowledge because of its implications that we somehow and someway “come of age”; we never stop, we just evolve. It insinuates stoppage while suggesting growth, which makes no sense. The Diary of a Teenage Girl encapsulates the thoughts, interactions, and naivetés of youth through a Lolita lead tale of sexual exploration from an extremist point of view.
As Minnie Getz (Bel Powley) strolls through the park, a smile on her face and a lightness to her step, her first words are, “I had sex today. Holy sh*t!” The first time for Minnie isn’t the messy experience of most people. Her deflowering is at the mercy of Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), a tall and muscular man who likes the drink. He’s also 20 years her senior. And dating Minnie’s mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig). The Diary of a Teenage Girl presents what is possibly the most sexually charged and creepily purposed love triangle I have seen on film. Somehow it dodges most of the assumptions that would typically be made about these kinds of characters doing these kinds of things and openly lets them be who they are. Our three main leads are often drunk, off the bottle and off of love, and the variance between their different paths rarely meet at a fork in the road. Each journey is unique.
However, this is Minnie’s escapade through and through. As played by Powley, a 23 year-old who pulls off the vulnerabilities of a teenager while imparting a mature awareness of sexuality, Minnie is a flesh and bones embodiment of empathy. Her confusion is universal. Her pursuit of answers normal. There’s a beauty to her breakdown. Who is Minnie? Not even she knows. But Powley could not be better. I hope she at least garners attention from the Golden Globes, because this is absolutely awards worthy work. She carries every frame, and her natural ability to escalate our sexual drives, personify the inner frustrations, and wean us into a full-blown meltdown is utterly remarkable. Even when the film sags, when it’s monotonous and tiring, Powley lifts it up. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a tremendously difficult movie to enjoy, yet Powley’s work makes it easily approachable.
Because it is so built on detachment and personal disintegration, the movie as a whole is strenuous to connect with. I never loved it, rarely felt more than merely and momentarily enamored with the film’s trajectory. And still, in this wild time capsule, during a year more vivid and heartfelt and disruptive than the average person ever goes through, it’s impossible to not ache and laugh at a number of moments. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is dependent upon a sublime absurdity. Throughout the picture, Minnie is an amateur artist and cartoonist. And at points the drawings become part of the organic world. Initially I resisted, and did not grasp, their overall purpose. But each time the technique is employed, we realize it comes during a pivotal moment of Minnie’s youth that she does not understand. The animations are the segue, her bridge to self-cultivation. As a film, that is how The Diary of a Teenage Girl comes across. It’s genuine and dishonest, forthright and feverish, precocious and preemptive in its motivations. Adolescence can be a consciously barbaric and quietly moving epoch.
“She thinks she needs a man to be happy. I don’t.”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5