Everyone knows being a teenager is hellish. It’s bad enough for the cool, popular, feared ones, but for everyone else it’s just one embarrassing stumble into adulthood.
The narrative of the hormonal, confused, door-slamming adolescent is written in textbooks, discussed in sex education classes, and understood by parents who wink and sigh to each other after yet another row with their evolving sprog.
But what’s so good about Marielle Heller’s new indie film The Diary of a Teenage Girl is that it depicts all the usual teen anxieties while also addressing the more complex realities that girls experience but everyone’s too scared to talk about— particularly when it comes to female sexuality.
The film’s heroine, Minnie Goetz (played by Benidorm’s Bel Powley) is a super-smart 15-year-old living in 1970s San Francisco with her mum (Kristen Wiig) and sister. She speaks into a tape recorder, recording her thoughts as an audio diary. She hates school, wants to be a cartoonist and above all she feels unloved, unattractive and is convinced she’ll never have sex.
So far, so normal. But when Minnie does lose her virginity — “I had sex today, holy sh*t!”— it’s to her mum’s 35-year old boyfriend Monroe (True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgård). Not so ordinary any more. The relationship with Monroe is abusive because she is still a child, and it’s certainly emotionally fraught. Yet it’s also empowering for Minnie. While Monroe is the one who first shows sexual interest in her, she’s the one who pursues him, literally telling him to f*ck her.
It’s shocking to see, and takes us into complex moral ground where the seemingly abusive situation is being at least partly controlled by a 15-year-old girl. Minnie flourishes and learns her own worth from sex with Monroe. “I’m so much better than you,” she thinks at one point, standing in front of the pathetic man she happily lost her virginity to.
Perhaps it’s not surprising the film has been given an 18 certificate for “strong sex”, but I understand why this has frustrated the filmmakers, cast and viewers who feel its adult rating is cutting off its target audience — those young women for whom it would be a a huge relief to see something so honest about their hopes, desires and fears.
The film’s distributor, Vertigo Releasing, claims that all the censors were male (although the British Board of Film Classification has denied this). I can just imagine these male, middle-aged censors — just like fathers in denial — all closing their eyes and ears as they yell, “no, this doesn’t happen to our children! Our sweet daughters would never pursue sex like this! This is all too scary for us!”
It’s a real shame, because this is exactly the movie I could have done with at 15. To see a young woman defy Hollywood categorisations of pretty and popular with boys/weird-looking and virginal would have been reassuring. Minnie’s experiences — some awful, some joyful — show there isn’t just one way to grow up, and that things will happen that don’t get discussed in Hollywood, teen magazines or anywhere else.
Disappointed by the age certificate, Powley told the Evening Standard, “I’m sure I’m not meant to say this but try and see the movie — get a fake ID and go and see it!” I too hope that all those 15-year-olds will find a way to watch it, because they’re the ones who this film would really empower.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is in UK cinemas from Friday 7th August