Coming-of-age stories can be challenging. You want an interesting protagonist, a storyline viewers can relate to, and if you’re going for realism, it helps if everything feels grounded. I’m no filmmaker or professional critic- this is just based off of viewing experiences.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is very much a grounded film that deals with the complex issue of a sexual relationship between a teenager and a grown man, but this movie isn’t here to comment on that.
Rather, we’re here to watch a young girl’s journey as her eyes are opened to a new world and she learns about control, her passions, the notion of being loved, wanted, and, at the end of the day, what makes her happy. It’s an enjoyable viewing from start to finish. Let’s dive into The Diary of a Teenage Girl.
The film begins in San Francisco, 1976, and it’s a wonderful time to be alive. Someone just had sex for the first time. Holy shit. As she checks out the folks around her living in the moment, our hero races home to one of her closest friends: her tape recorder. She turns it on and recounts her life and the events that led to this sexual awakening, so let’s flash back for a moment.
This is 15-year-old Minnie Goetze, played by Bel Powley. Young Minnie here doesn’t remember the details of her birth- just that it was ugly. We learn that Minnie’s mother married her intelligent ex-stepfather, but he’s not around for the moment. We’ll meet him later.
In the meantime, Minnie’s mother, Charlotte, played by Kristen Wiig, is currently with her boyfriend, Monroe, played by Alexander Skarsgård. One night, Minnie joins them on the couch for some television. Charlotte heads to bed, leaving Minnie and Monroe alone. They get comfortable and close, Minnie even notices that Monroe, whether intentional or by accident, placed a hand on her tit. Minnie wonders if her boobs are small. For a 15-year-old girl, they’re not.
I don’t have a good eye- it’s just a guess.
Minnie, I should mention, is a cartoonist with a knack for art. She loves to draw and is quite imaginative. She speaks to a drawing of Monroe, who says that her tits are perfect. It’s always nice to have your cup size validated by art.
Next day, Monroe is still on Minnie’s mind. She thinks that he is thinking of her. When she arrives home, she finds Charlotte and Monroe making plans visit a bar, but Charlotte is reluctant to join. Instead, Charlotte suggests that Monroe take Minnie with him to the bar. It never hurts to start early. Plus, hey, it’s the 1970s, underage drinking probably isn’t discouraged in some circles.
Anyway, at the bar, Minnie flirts a bit with Monroe. She tries biting him, but then she takes his finger in her mouth and begins to work it. In response, Monroe realizes that he’s got a boner. To prove it, Monroe has her feel it. It’s an interesting feel to Minnie, but she still thinks that it’s skin. Then she comes right out and tells Monroe that she wants him to fuck her. Disbelief is written all over his face.
However, Monroe decides that he can’t have sex that night. Next day, though, he swings by her school and picks her up, because cutting school was cool in the 1970s.
The two head to Monroe’s pad and, slowly but surely, Minnie experiences her first sexual experience. When it’s all said and done, the two stare at the ceiling. Minnie marks a bloody X on Monroe- conquest conquered. Minnie decides that she wants a picture of herself, so Monroe obliges and takes one that she can keep. But none of him, though. And no telling anyone about this.
At home, Minnie finds her mother and sister, Gretel, played by Abigail Wait, watching television. But no time for family bonding. Minnie heads for her recorder and shares that, one hour ago, she had sex, which officially makes her an adult.
Minnie then calls her friend, Kimmie, played by Madeleine Waters, to share the good news. Well, sort of, as she makes Kimmie guess. When Kimmie learns that Minnie had sex with Monroe, she’s taken aback. After all, Monroe is in his 30s and Minnie…well, is not.
After Monroe stops by to see Charlotte, Minnie reflects. This awakening has brought about feelings within her, as she wants to be loved by a person who feels they would die without her. While staring at naked body in the mirror, she yearns to have a body pressed against hers. The girl is just exuding sexuality, isn’t she?
In fact, Minnie is so open to discussing these adventures of hers that she shares to her recorder that she and Monroe have had sex seven times. All while on a bus with other passengers. You know, what normal people do. At least she’s normal enough to pass notes in class.
Back at home, Charlotte and Monroe follow the news regarding the ongoing kidnapping of Patty Hearst. Minnie and Kimmie, meanwhile, discuss the possibility of Minnie’s mother learning about her daughter’s activities.
Charlotte, though, isn’t a fan of Kimmie and lets Minnie know as such when the two have a moment together. She thinks Kimmie is white trash, but hey, the boys seem to like the way she dresses. Charlotte, it turns out, was quite the piece when she was Kimmie’s age.
It’s Kristen Wiig- I’m sure she’s always had a banging look. Anyway, Charlotte asks her daughter if she likes anyone. She knows that Kimmie is attractive. If she puts her body out there to get attention, she’ll realize that she great power over the boys.
And that, my friends, is the moral of the story. The end.
Nah, let’s keep going. After another sex session between Minnie and Monroe, Minnie pops the question to him: is she fat? This is already one of those trap questions for guys, but to ask it right after sex is odd, but par for the course with this film. Monroe realizes how odd this arrangement is and wants to stop, but admits that Minnie has a hold on him. Women do tend to have that power.
We follow Minnie to a comic shop, where she still has sex on the brain. To the point, she likes being fucked and wants to have sex right now. She picks up a copy of Aline Kominsky’s comic, Twisted Sister, and gets the inspiration to start working on her own comic.
Later, Minnie later receives a call from her stepfather, Pascal, played by Christopher Meloni, who is interested in having his daughters join him in New York.
That evening, as Minnie waxes on about her feelings, she hears a commotion. Charlotte, Monroe, and their friends drunkenly stumble into the apartment, having had a great time celebrating Monroe’s 35th birthday. Upon spotting her, Monroe leads the adults in a toast to Minnie. For what, I don’t know. It’s not her birthday.
When Monroe isn’t around, Minnie has sex with a school mate, Chuck, played by Quinn Nagle. And it’s clear on the floor of the pool house that Minnie is the dominant. She urges Chuck to take things slow, and then she takes control by getting on top. It’s fine, but Chuck is intimidated by Minnie’s fiery spirit.
When Minnie heads home, Monroe, notices the hickey on her neck. He later swings by the school to pick her up so the two can go look at boats. Monroe, seeing how interested Minnie is in sex, rightly accuses her of being a nymphomaniac. Well, someone had to say it.
Inside one of the boats, Monroe tells Minnie about his future plans. He wants to buy a boat so he can travel and become the captain of his own destiny. Minnie, randy as ever, wants sex right now. As the two fool around, though, Minnie jokingly yells out ‘Rape.’ Now you do not fuck around with that word in a casual way, and Monroe knows this. He hushes her.
After some consensual sex, Minnie shows her artwork to Monroe, who is fine with it, but advises against showing it to people that may find it weird. Monroe is ready to move on, but Minnie doesn’t want to leave the boat. She threatens to run out of the boat naked, but Monroe keeps her there. And after trying to get Monroe to talk about his parents goes nowhere, Minnie decides that it’s time the two had a serious talk about their relationship.
I know. It’s as weird as it sounds. When Minnie, as a joke again, threatens to tell her mother about them, Monroe loses his cool. Minnie is just a child, he says. If anything, he’s the one who should be telling her mother, but he feels manipulated by Minnie. Minnie’s upset by this and begins to cry while telling Monroe that she hates him. Monroe, though, still likes her.
Later, Minnie and Kimmie party in Minnie’s room and lick her Iggy Pop poster. Kimmie shares a tale about her blowing a Black father and how much she enjoyed it, but she’s scared of crossing that line into sex.
Know who else is scared? The boy from before, who is scared off by the intensity of the sex between him and Minnie.
Okay, that’s fine. Minnie has other ways. After learning that her mother lost her job, Minnie and Kimmie head into town to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show. At a bar, the girls discuss the power they have over boys, particularly if they pretend that they’re hookers. Minnie shows off her hooker walk to Minnie and two boys at the other end of the bar. When she returns, Minnie shares with Kimmie that she promised that the two of them would blow the boys if they gave them money.
And the very next shot is of the two of them on their knees in the bathroom, doing just that. And the girls even join hands while doing so, as if their powers combined will enhance their fellatio.
So…yeah. We then cut to the two girls laying in Minnie’s bed. Both feel weird, and for a damn good reason. The two vow to never do something like that again.
Sheesh, is female adolescence this complicated across the board? Let’s stop here.
For the past few years, we’ve seen a number of films like Bridesmaids and, more recently, Trainwreck, with female leads that don’t conform to what we’d expect. Rather than giving us a pristine woman who is the jewel of everyone’s eyes, we see them as more flawed and down to Earth. The best example I can think of would be Obvious Child.
But more than that, a lot of- but not all- the coming-of-age films have focused on the male perspective. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t frank films with female leads and I’m not calling for a sudden explosion of movies that explore the female libido. What I’m saying is that, like Obvious Child, I welcome this sort of film, especially when done by a confident director who takes the material seriously, and that’s what Marielle Heller managed to accomplish here.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is, in fact, a coming-of-age film with a focus on female adolescence and sexuality. That mere premise alone would ward people off, which is unfortunate because this is a very honest movie that is unapologetic about the way it presents its main character and conflict from the very start.
I think a challenge of a film like this is the target audience. There’s a lot to take from Diary, in particular if you’re a teenage girl, because a movie with this subject matter isn’t accessible to certain groups of people. Despite starring a young protagonist, Diary has an “R” rating from the MPAA.
This, in effect, limits who can view the film while it’s in theaters. I understand the reason for the rating. We are talking about a movie with a bit of nudity and its main storyline involving a teenager in a sexual relationship with a man in his 30s.
Similar to Obvious Child, Diary sticks out because it breaks the mold of what’s conventional and standard for movies with young, female leads. While this is a story about a young girl going through a sexual awakening, there’s a much deeper tale here about control and sexual liberation. It’s about discovering your inner abilities and tasting power for the first time.
The film explores self-worth by giving us a protagonist who, for the longest time, thought that she wasn’t desirable. Minnie is by no means a role model, but she’s also not a character you despise. She’s experiencing the first taste of adulthood well before most would say she should, but this is Minnie’s decision to make. We’re seeing the film through her eyes.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl isn’t here to pick sides or hit you over the head with the morality hammer. It’s not here to question whether it’s acceptable for a girl to have sex with a man much older than her. It isn’t out to make Minnie, Monroe, or Charlotte out to be villains.
There isn’t a moral of the story here so much as there are lessons learned. Minnie goes through an arc and we’re left to come to our own conclusions about her decisions. To me, that’s how it should be. It would be easy to take a movie like this and beat you over the head with a message about the dangers of premarital and underage sex. If you want that, watch a PSA.
In addition, if the film spent more time having you question Minnie’s decisions, we would judge her instead of just embracing her going through the motions of adolescence. This movie, despite its premise, takes a serious examination of what it means to be a girl growing into a woman.
It respects Minnie’s decisions rather, than make a big fuss about them. After Minnie’s first experience, she takes notice of how much people around her are into sex and what kind of body she has. The scene of her examining her own nude body in the mirror is a surprise moment, but it’s important because she’s now paying attention to the body she downplayed for years.
One of the central themes of Diary is acceptance. Minnie wonders aloud whether others are thinking about her and she longs to feel contact with another human body. I remember having similar feelings when I was a teenage girl. Before, Minnie didn’t think much of herself, but now, she feels that she needs to have sex in order to be happy. Again, the film isn’t here to pick one side or the other. Even though Minnie enjoys sex, she realizes that having a man in her life isn’t what will make her happy.
So in addition to watching a girl go through life after sex, we’re seeing her consider what makes her happy in life. That comes across best illustrated in her art. If there’s one thing Minnie is passionate about, it’s her art, and I’m glad that the film takes time to establish her love for the craft and how it’s interwoven into the film.
It’s surreal at times watching her interact with art and almost reminded me of Big Eyes, specifically the scene where Margaret goes shopping and sees other customers with the same big eyes in her paintings.
In addition to acceptance, Diary talks a lot about control. Though Minnie may be a teenager, she’s more than capable of dominating her partner during sexual encounters. She marks Monroe after she’s had sex for the first time, as if she’d just marked her prey. And Chuck fears her fiery spirit when she gets on top of him.
It can be scary, but also liberating to jump headfirst into a situation where you have little experience, but that’s where Minnie’s rush comes from: taking control of a situation and running it not because she wants to dominate her partners, but because she can.
It takes a bit of encouragement from her mother to call attention to the fact that, as a woman, her body can get men to do whatever a woman asks. That’s not the most motherly advice to give, but it’s important because it backs up her reasoning for forcing sex with Monroe and sets up what she’ll do to entice both men and women as she puts her body to good use.
For the first time in her life, Minnie realizes what it’s like to have power and it’s an intoxicating feeling. She’s not setting herself up to be a dominatrix. But because she’s still young, she goes through this power rush with a childlike wonder. Monroe doesn’t force her to have sex- she makes a conscious decision to seek him out.
Having this film take place around the time of Patty Hearst’s kidnapping was a good way to tie that real life event into Minnie’s character arc. Just as Charlotte wonders whether Hearst was forced into committing crimes or if she chose to do wrong, we could ask the same of Minnie. Even though she isn’t, it’s not unlikely that someone will question the consent factor between Monroe and Minnie. Is she a victim? She never makes herself out to be one.
Hell, Monroe may speak for a lot of audience goers when he calls attention to the fact that he is a grown man having sex with a teenager. Minnie jokingly screams rape and threatens to tell her mother about their encounters. While she’s just having fun, Monroe understands the seriousness of what could happen if word got out. It may be the free-loving 1970s, but this is still a man involved in a sexual relationship with an underage girl.
Again, though, Minnie is fine with this and is willing to take the risks, despite any consequences or backlash she’ll receive. To a point. I prefer this film taking place in the 1970s as opposed to now. Had this occurred in 2015, Minnie would go through what people call ‘slut-shaming’ and the movie would become more about making her a victim or whore instead of letting her make her decisions and dealing with the consequences. She’d be too obsessed with what others think of her.
That’s not the case here. After having sex, Minnie walks with confidence in her stride. At one point, she leaves school and walks past a classmate who calls her a slut under her breath. Rather than acknowledge that, Minnie shrugs and goes on about her business. She’s not bothered by being demonized. In this day and age, though, with how quick people are to criticize someone on social media, I don’t think this film would have worked as well if it took place in the present.
This extends to the portrayal of Minnie’s mother. Sure, there’s something to be said about a somewhat absent mother who engages in drugs, alcohol, and doesn’t pay much attention to her daughter’s sexual activities, but that’s looking at things from an outsider’s perspective. True, Charlotte isn’t the best of mothers.
We know that she’s had a difficult life and needs to get her shit together, but she is trying. The problem is that, as the adult, she should show more responsibility instead of turning to drugs for solace. Despite how damaged she is, Charlotte does still try to encourage Minnie. In hindsight, she might have held out giving that advice if she knew that her daughter was having sex with her boyfriend.
As far as the acting goes, it’s an impressive performance from Kristen Wiig. I’ve gotta say, I’m continually impressed by the roles she’s picked since leaving Saturday Night Live. She’s still funny, but her roles on The Skeleton Twins, Welcome to Me, and now this show that she has range well beyond comedic performances.
Alexander Skarsgård is also great as Monroe. He’s got the right kind for this character and the film doesn’t try to paint him as a pedophile or criminal because he’s having sex with a teenager. Is it questionable? Sure, but Monroe isn’t in this to take advantage of Minnie. Hell, he’s just along for the ride and recognizes that Minnie enjoys the attention as much as she does the sex.
In addition, again, he’s not blind to the fact that he is having sex with a teenager who is also his girlfriend’s daughter. That’s just seven kinds of fucked up and I’m glad the film has Monroe speak for the audience when he points out how wrong this is. He could walk away any moment, but he enjoys Minnie’s companionship.
Monroe may not be a creeper, but he is a damaged man. He engages in drinking and drugs just as much as Charlotte and just dreams of sailing the seas. Monroe doesn’t have a clear goal in life for himself. He lives in the moment. That’s not bad, but it does paint him as a tad lazy, in my opinion.
But the star of the show is Minnie. Again, it’s been years since I was a teenage girl, but Minnie feels authentic. She’s not made out to be perfect at all. She isn’t the most attractive girl in her class, doesn’t try to make herself stick out, and doesn’t make desperate pleas for attention. Her passions are sex and her art. Yeah, we’re still dealing with a teenager here, but something about the way Minnie goes about her sexual adventures feel authentic.
She isn’t just there to jump Monroe’s bones. She’s still wondering about her body image and, after sex, asks him the random question about her weight. This is as much a journey for her as it is her own rite of passage. Since crossing that line, she sees the world in a new light. It’s like giving sugar to a kid for the first time and letting them see what all the fuss is about. Minnie is that kid tasting the forbidden substance and wants more.
Again, though, Minnie isn’t perfect- just naïve, and that’s fine because she still has a lot of growing up to do. Why does she have sex with her mother’s boyfriend? Why does she get deep into drugs at such a young age? Why does she decide to have female partners? Because she can and chooses to. This film has Minnie making one questionable decision after another- decisions that parents would balk at for many reasons. But not Charlotte, at least, not until a certain point in the film…
I think it’s fair to say that many of us long for a genuine connection with someone: be it a spouse, friend, parent, lover, or all of the above. Until she has sex, all those feelings Minnie had were buried underneath the surface, just waiting for an outlet. Granted, her art also is also a way for her to express her true feelings, but having sex with Monroe was a game-changer for Minnie. She can’t go back to being that mild-mannered, unassuming girl. She can only go forward and try to make sense of her life.
Like Monroe, Minnie wants to be the captain of her own destiny. The difference is, of course, experience. Minnie hasn’t been around as long as Monroe to seriously make adult decisions and she pays for some of her choices. Despite how much she puts into this relationship, she is still, at heart, a kid. She cries when Monroe calls her out for taking advantage of him. And even though she feels on top of the world, she still has trouble fitting in at school.
But there’s no trouble at all with the performance. Bel Powley is amazing in this role and I was surprised to learn that she’s actually British because she pulls off an American accent quite well. But then, that seems to be pretty easy for non-American actors. She feels like an authentic American teenage girl and can play both fun-loving and mature at the same time when her arc comes to an end. And the writing never makes her try to sound older than she is.
The difference between this film and something like Juno is that I can buy Minnie saying things like she needs to have a serious talk about her relationship with a man in his 30s. She’s caught up in the moment and feels like she’s more mature than she is, but she isn’t. Whereas in Juno, a lot of the dialogue felt like it was written for someone much older than Juno herself.
If I had an issue with the film, it’s not about a teenager being involved with a man in his 30s, but that the ones that notice them close together don’t seem to pay much notice. There’s a scene early on where Minnie and Monroe are a bit too close for comfort, and I get that the moment is about them, but come on, it doesn’t take much for one person to look over and notice something off about that situation. And to the film’s credit, Charlotte does become suspicious before thinking nothing of it, so it’s not as if the film ignores this altogether.
All that said, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is an amazing film and a great coming-of-age tale. It takes a break from the testosterone filled movies about boys being boys and lets us see things from the female perspective. It presents us with a flawed individual who is exposed to a whole new world through her first sexual encounter. From there, each decision she makes is her own and the film doesn’t feel the need to make the audience pick a side. It presents the situation and conflict, the character’s motive and actions, and lets you come to your own conclusion.
To me, especially for a film like this, that’s how it should be. What will one person do to feel loved? Is it better to be loved first, or to love yourself? The film presents the questions and allows us to see Minnie find the answers as she makes her journey. Though Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgård are great in their performances, this is Bel Powley’s film. With some strong acting, an interesting protagonist, and a refreshing change of pace from your typical coming-of-age story, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a film that I would very much recommend.
It’s not for everyone, let me make that clear, but I think it’s one worth seeing.