Quick: name a coming-of-age movie told from the perspective of a teenage girl that fully embraces—unburdened by shyness or irony—the complexities of its character’s sexual awakening, one that’s also written and directed by a female filmmaker. Hard, isn’t it? High marks if you named, say, Catherine Breillat’s deliriously icky A Real Young Girl (made all the way back in 1976) or Jannicke Systad Jacobsen’s wonderfully horny Turn Me On, Dammit! (from 2011), both of which take an unfiltered (and not coincidentally, European) dive into territory so often left uncharted in the adolescent cinema. American teen movies have an apparently inexhaustible obsession with the dick and its many odysseys of conquest, of course, which makes the brazenly femme-sexual The Diary of a Teenage Girl—written and directed by first-time filmmaker Marielle Heller—a unique and essential corrective, even as it’ll be erroneously dismissed as familiar by those weaned on a diet of male coming-of-agers.
Drawn from the acclaimed graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, Girl takes place around San Francisco’s Bay Area in 1976, where Haight-Ashbury free-love has been corroded by Me-Decade hedonism, a shade past the contemporary wave of women’s lib and pre the onset of punk rock, whose nascent spectre creeps throughout like the constant TV broadcasts of bad-girl heiress Patty Hearst’s defection. It’s a clever nexus at which to locate the hormonal stirrings of Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley), an intelligently wide-eyed and inquisitive teenager who lives with her permissive single mum Charlotte (Kristen Wiig, excellent) and her mum’s current boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård, rocking a centerfold moustache like nobody’s business.) Minnie’s burgeoning obsession with sex—oft-conveyed via a cassette recorder diary she keeps in her bedroom—leads her into an tempestuous affair with Monroe, playing Vida to Charlotte’s Mildred and thus setting the narrative on its nominal path to dramatic fireworks.
But the plot is nearly irrelevant to what makes Heller’s film such a winner. We’ve seen the trope of the young girl falling for an older man plenty of times before (most recently in the Emma Roberts-James Franco tryst of Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto), and while the relationship between Minnie and Monroe certainly services our heroine’s awkward first steps into womanhood (while exposing the spiritual bankruptcy of her adult role models), it turns out that it’s just the introduction to the unapologetically raw and raunchy journey of self discovery that electrifies the film.
Lock up your queasy elders, because Girl is unashamedly, explicitly sexual, and features the kind of character who would otherwise be morally dismissed as promiscuous, slut-shamed or held accountable for her indiscretions in a lesser (and possible male-lensed) picture. And therein lies much of the film’s considerable power. It’s a fine line to walk between exploitation and empowerment, and both Heller and Powley — who gives a remarkable performance of vulnerability blossoming into full-on control — find that magic groove that captures the real experience of being a teenager with none of the usual filmmaker leeriness and/or condescension. Consider the tone-perfect handling of a scene mid-film that could go awry in all kinds of ways in the wrong hands: Minnie and her best pal Kimmie (Madeleine Waters) sneak into a bar and decide to play-act as prostitutes for fun, which leads them into performing tandem blow jobs on two young men in the backroom. “Let’s never do that again,” they giggle in sardonic agreement like Enid and Rebecca from Ghost World, as they (and Heller) toss the moment aside for the slightly absurd, mundane incident that it is. What’s wonderful is how the scene catches that moment of lingering childhood (mischievous BFFs playing grown person games) and treats it as something silly, rather than finger waving or regarding it as sensational. Because that’s precisely what it is: simply a part of life and growing up.
There are precious few films willing to engage with female teen sexuality in such a matter-of-fact way, at least not without turning it into some kind of zoological exhibit (Lars von Trier’s laugh-out-loud riot Nymphomaniac), questionable male voyeurism (Abdellatif Kechiche’s borderline skeevy Blue is the Warmest Colour) or straight-up sex work (François Ozon’s odd Young and Beautiful.)1 The beauty of Girl is that all of this—the messiness of discovering one’s body, the contradicting feelings, the raw, inexplicable desire that comes and goes on a whim—is presented as entirely normal. What’s more, Minnie, whether she realizes it or not, always appears to be in control of the situations. In one of the movie’s best (and funniest) scenes, she orders her teenage-boy sexual partner to turn over on his back so she can have her orgasm—and the confused look that comes over his face, after minutes of mechanical missionary pumping, is priceless.
Aesthetically, Heller uses a range of formal devices to create a kind of cinematic collage of Minnie’s world. Brandon Trost’s perpetually hazy cinematography vividly recalls Sofia Coppola’s 1975-set The Virgin Suicides, an allusion the film reinforces with soundtrack choices (Heart’s “Dreamboat Annie”) and schoolbook-style animation dreamily etched onto various frames. This very ’70s-style animation, the work of Icelandic artist Sara Gunnarsdottir, is put to even more overt use during the film’s second half, as Minnie, an aspiring graphic artist herself, starts to receive mentor-like visits from her hero, comic book writer Aline Kominsky. 2 Moreover, Heller understands the sanctified space of the teenage girl’s bedroom, and how sometimes sex is less about the sex itself than simply the thrill of getting to stick a guy’s picture on your wall. That Minnie rapturously performs fellatio on her Iggy Pop poster is the movie’s most perfect encapsulation of that phenomena—not to mention foreshadowing the late-film punk explosion, including a super giddy sexuality exploration set to Television’s irrepressible “See No Evil.”
In these and many such moments, Diary of a Teenage Girl very much evokes the spirit of Breillat’s work, in so much as it’s fiercely unconcerned with how a male audience—most of who won’t understand anyway—responds to a very specific depiction of female teenage desire. Toward the end of her film, with Minnie taking winged form in one of her Kominsky-inspired illustrations, Heller makes a quite touching point of quoting one of Gloeckner’s lines: “For all the girls when they have grown.” This movie is for them.
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