It’s San Francisco in 1976 and Minnie Goetz just had sex for the first time. An utterly liberating moment not only for her as a teen, but for her evolution as a woman, is just as impactful and freeing as the handling of the source material in writer/director Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl.
Played emphatically by newcomer Bel Powley, The Diary of a Teenage Girl weaves between the monumental moments of Minnie’s life and how she handles them. But what is most groundbreaking is how Heller deftly handles these subject matters without judgement or pandering, allowing us to understand what makes Minnie tick and why that isn’t that different from the rest of us.
The film follows Minnie, who strikes up a relationship with her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), leading to her first sexual experience. The relationship continues for some time with Minnie further finding out more and more about herself and channeling her new found passion into the thing she most adores — drawing.
This allows the film to not only look at the process of “becoming a woman” and the teenage experience of sex, but also explore the avenue of the creative process and what drives us to our bliss. Minnie may have channeled her passion through an unorthodox way, but she comes out the other end stronger and with the gift of art.
Powley plays the role with sincerity and clarity, in one moment allowing us inside the head of Minnie to understand what she is thinking at any given moment but then challenging us to agree with the decisions she makes.
On a bare level, Minnie is a teenager. Those moments that frustrate us as she continues to go back to Monroe and give everything to him — including her love and time — is frustrating but understandable. Heller treats it like a teenage girl would and ask us not to judge Minnie, but to understand the world in which she comes from.
Her mother, Charlotte (played wonderfully by Kristen Wiig), has reeled since her most recent failed marriage and Monroe is her weak stability block. Whenever he isn’t there, Charlotte is snorting coke, reminiscing on the good ole days, and do everything but being a “good” mother.
But what Heller does so well is reminds us that we all have our scars. Near the end of the film, when Minnie runs away and is gone for days, she returns to the open arms of Charlotte who has been searching for her daughter every day since she left. In that moment, she is pure again, even though her indiscretions may say otherwise.
It is a reminder that even though we screw up, and maybe life isn’t going as planned, there is still love and hope in the world.
That moment when Charlotte engulfs Minnie with a hug, and tells her to forget the past, is heartwarming and sincere. Yes, Minnie has slept multiple times with Monroe and tainted her “purity,” leading to girls snarling at her and calling her “slut” but in that moment, she is her little girl again and nothing will change that.
The world isn’t in black and white, there are many colors and textures to it, and Heller shows us this through the use of bright textures and animation to display Minnie’s emotions and thoughts.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a film about empathy, growth, and adolescence, treated with a soft hand and a knowledgeable mind. There is no judgment, just the message that every life has many textures and giving up on it after one mistake is silly and unreasonable. We are all imperfect human beings, but sometimes that imperfection can lead to something grand.