When you’re a teenage girl, it’s hard to know the shape of your own sexuality. Before you can even begin to suss out its contours from within, you feel such pressure from without. Parents want to deny it. Your friends want to egg it on. Authorities want to control it. The media want to capitalize on it. Teenage boys, walloped by their own suddenly turbocharged libidos, want to bulldoze it. And grown men, who stare and follow and otherwise try to insinuate themselves into your confidence, want things that seem both terrifying and thrilling.
But what do teenage girls want? Stuck at the center of this maelstrom of other people’s fears and fascination, how can they even tell? There has never been a better medium to explore this question than the novel, with its unfettered access to the interior recesses of the self. The inner life of a teenage girl can be like an unstable weather system, shot through with squalls, inexplicably balmy interludes, and stretches of drab rain. Writers have used first-person narration to chart this mercurial climate in books ranging from Jane Eyre to I Capture the Castle to Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding (among others) proved that the third-person does justice to a teen girl’s yearnings, too.
The movies can claim far fewer triumphs in this department. Partly this is the result of the medium itself, which can only show us the outsides of people and then encourage us to infer what’s happening within. The outsides of pretty girls have long been one of film’s favorite subjects, too, an interest that only occasionally extends to the girls’ own thoughts and desires. Mena Suvari’s cheerleader character in American Beauty is the archetype: mooned over as a sublime, rose-strewn ideal by Kevin Spacey’s Lester Turnham, despite the girl’s actual vapidity. Other teenage girls, like the titular sisters of The Virgin Suicides, are presented as ciphers to the men who long for or even possess them. The Jeffrey Eugenides novel on which it was based succeeds where the film fails in conveying how men’s desires can sometimes blind them to women’s humanity. Trained by a lifetime of watching films in which the surfaces of girls are all that matter, we moviegoers are sometimes blinded too. Lolita weeps inconveniently in the next room, and Humbert Humbert turns a deaf ear.
Minnie Goetze isn’t a big crier, though. True, the main character and subject of Marielle Heller’s exhilarating directorial debut The Diary of a Teenage Girl doesn’t come out of her hair-raising adventures without shedding her fair share of tears, but those tears are not the point. Fifteen-year-old Minnie, played with gleaming intensity by Bel Powley, has an affair with her mother’s boyfriend (twice her age), hooks up with guys from school, sleeps with a dangerously charming lesbian, and even briefly experiments with prostitution alongside her best friend Kimmie—before both girls decide that was gross and vow never to do it again. Yet The Diary of a Teenage Girl is not, as you might expect from this précis, a cautionary tale. Minnie is ravenous for experience, particularly of the erotic variety, and living with a hip, lackadaisical single mom (played by Kristen Wiig) in 1970s San Francisco, she has plenty of opportunities to satisfy her curiosity, and her lust.
There’s something transgressive about even typing the word “lust” in reference to a 15-year-old. Isn’t “She wanted it!” the habitual excuse of abusers and other skeevy men? It is, but pretending that 15-year-old girls never feel carnal desire, or only feel it toward appropriate partners, does another kind of damage. No doubt that’s one reason why Heller has pursued this project so ardently, from the moment eight years ago when she first read the novel (told in comics and text) of the same title by Phoebe Gloeckner. Since then, Heller has retold Gloeckner’s story in an off-Broadway stage production (in which she played Minnie), and now in a film, which she both wrote and directed. “You feel stupid for having these thoughts or feeling like they’re wrong,” Heller told the Los Angeles Times. “I just feel like this film is doing a service to young women, like, it’s OK, you’re all normal, you’re fine.”
Minnie’s experience isn’t every girl’s, but it is entirely hers. The Diary of a Teenage Girl avoids the voyeurism that threatens any film about a young girl’s sexuality by burying itself in Minnie’s sensibility. At times, her drawings and doodles (she’s an aspiring cartoonist) commandeer the screen, worming their way over the photographed images like ivy engulfing a stone wall. Cleverly, Heller has cast outrageously sexy actors in the roles of Minnie’s lovers: Alexander Skarsgard as Monroe, her mother’s feckless boyfriend, and Margarita Levieva as the lesbian junkie who finally takes Minnie to the limits of her daring. (It crossed my mind that their characters might “really” be far less attractive, and only Minnie, in her fever, sees them as Skarsgard and Levieva.)
Above all, the movie has Powley’s face, which like Giulietta Masina‘s or Maria Falconetti‘s has the power to fill and transfigure the frame. With her huge, round, heavy-lidded eyes, Powley inhales and possesses the movie’s point of view. Technically, we know her character is being taken advantage of, but on screen, she’s the queen of her world—an often goofy and callow queen, but a queen all the same. “Nobody loves you. Nobody sees you. Nobody touches you,” Minnie tells herself, which is both the reason why her desire has enjoyed enough space to flourish on its own, and not quite true. The audience loves, sees, and inhabits her.
Heller’s version of The Diary of a Teenage Girl is several shades sunnier than Gloeckner’s. The book is semi-autobiographical and some of its passages are lifted directly from Gloeckner’s own girlhood diary; Gloeckner, too, had an affair with her mother’s boyfriend. But while Glockner’s Monroe is the initiator of the affair, Heller’s version of the character serves more as a willing participant, albeit one who eventually lets Minnie down by refusing to fulfill her romantic dreams. (Basically, he’s hung up on her mom.) Their clinches evolve out of bouts of boisterous horseplay, juvenile hijinks that make Monroe seem not much more than a big kid himself.
That doesn’t of course, mean that Monroe isn’t wrong to have sex with Minnie, however much she pesters him for it; he is in fact a statutory rapist. He has no right to decide that their relationship is acceptable, regardless of what Minnie says, and regardless of whether or not she suffers any lasting harm as the result of it. (Gloeckner has said that she regards the relationship that inspired her book as sexual abuse, “because he didn’t see the love I had for him. I actually really loved him. But I think that meant nothing for him, or he would laugh it off.”)
However, Monroe’s abuse doesn’t define Minnie, either. When other films—Andrea Arnold’s excellent 2009 feature Fish Tank comes to mind—have dealt with similar relationships, we’re meant to understand the girl as used, motivated by emotional rather than sexual hunger. Minnie, on the other hand, feels pleasure and wants more of it, seeking out casual trysts with a classmate who finds her passion disconcerting and says (in a paraphrase of the book), “Having sex with you kind of scares me.” This prompts an animated fantasia in which a giant woman strides down a San Francisco street and scoops up a cowering male figure in her mammoth fist.
Desire can make a girl feel that way: impressive and powerful, whatever alarming paths it takes her down, but also grotesque, should her wants be dismissed as freakish. At the moment when Minnie’s life seems set to go grievously off the rails, it’s her familiarity with her own desire—her understanding of what she doesn’t want as well as of what she does—that saves her. Some viewers will likely be made uncomfortable by The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Others will fear the movie’s very existence will encourage predators. But why should the designs of creeps like that end up dictating what girls and women are allowed to say about their own lives? The Minnies of this world deserve better.