"Are they supposed to be sexy?" A clearly perplexed man at one point poses this question to Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley), the 15-year-old protagonist of "The Diary of a Teenage Girl." He's referring to drawings, depicting various sex acts and genitalia, that appear throughout the amateur cartoonist's sketchbook, though he might as well be talking about specific scenes from the film itself. That the question is being asked by Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), the 35-year-old boyfriend of Minnie's mother -- with whom the girl is engaging in an illicit affair -- adds another layer of discomfort to this unconventionally frank coming-of-age story.
Filmic depictions of teenage sexuality make one thing abundantly clear: society doesn't know how to deal with teenagers. Movies that dare to treat teenaged characters as sexual beings generally fall into one of two categories: idealized stories of first love, or low-brow sex comedies, where we don't have to take them at all seriously. Honest portrayals of teenage sexuality are rare to find, and ones centered around females are rarer still. All this to say that first-time director Marielle Heller's "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" is quietly revolutionary. We're used to seeing movies about horny, sex-obsessed boys, but an unapologetic treatment of a young woman's enjoyment of sex is practically unheard of. The film's story isn't meant to titillate, instead offering a refreshingly matter-of-fact examination of one girl's journey toward sexual independence. That it's also mercilessly funny, authentic, and unerringly wise is icing on the cake.
Based on Phoebe Gloeckner's 2002 graphic novel, "Diary" chronicles Minnie's search for love and sex in 1970's San Francisco, where she lives with her mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) and younger sister Gretel (Abby Wait). The film makes the most of its period setting, indulging in the looser sexual mores and free-flowing drugs that characterized life at the time. Patty Hearst is a frequent topic of conversation, and that case's implicit questions of victimization versus free will grow to color the film's overarching narrative. While Charlotte isn't entirely absent, she's not exactly present either, too wrapped up in the druggy atmosphere of the era to monitor her daughter's activities too closely. Minnie's relationship with the hapless Monroe seems to spring up equally out of Minnie's need for attention and her sheer curiosity.
Frequently, Minnie's drawings spring from the pages of her journals to overtake the frame. They're often strikingly grotesque caricatures, exaggerations of the awkwardness Minnie feels when she gazes at her own body. Powley (who I was surprised to learn is a Brit) delivers an emotionally rich, textured performance as a girl whose appetites get her in over her head, but ultimately allow her to discover the power she wields within herself.
Heller doesn't demonize her characters, and for those used to directors taking audiences by the hand, spelling out explicitly whether what we're seeing is right or wrong, it may take some getting used to. Monroe seems attracted to Minnie at least in part because he still feels like an adolescent himself, and the film is unsparing in depicting Monroe's deficiencies; he's a sad, weak man. Though at first Minnie sees only the attractive, mature outer package, by the end of the film Minnie has gained the ability to see right through it.