52 Films By Women: Marielle Heller's 'Diary Of A Teenage Girl'
There’s a scene about halfway through Diary of a Teenage Girl where Alexander Skarsgård’s character Monroe is talking to his on-again/off-again girlfriend Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) about her ex-husband, and I found myself thinking, “Yeah, that child rapist does have a point.” Which is to say, this is a complicated film.
It centers on Charlotte’s daughter and Monroe’s sometimes-lover 15-year-old Minnie Goetze. Like I said, complicated. She begins the affair with her mother’s boyfriend just as she comes of age in the sexually, and drug-charged atmosphere of 1970’s San Fransisco. That description alone should make you a little wary. Stories about women, and especially girls, experiencing their sexuality usually come in either cautionary or exploitative flavors. So it was shockingly refreshing to watch a movie that treats a teenage girl who wants to have sex as a fully fledged character. Despite a number of harrowing things that happen to her, Minnie is never tricked or manipulated into wanting to have sex. The fact that she has an active and healthy libido isn’t ever treated or presented as a problem, it’s just a normal part of being a person.
What’s even more surprising is the fact that Monroe, the 35-year-old rapist who’s having an affair with his girlfriend’s daughter, is presented as an understandably desirous sexual partner. And I’m going to level with you, that’s a super weird sentence to write. Because as a nearly 35-year-old myself, a large part of me can only see what an entirely creepy bastard Monroe really is. It can only want to shout, “Eric Northman, you rapist fuck, when a child puts your finger in her mouth, you don’t tell her she just gave you a hard-on! Fuck!” But this story is Minnie’s. Meaning we not only understand how the familial/paternal affection the two share could become weirdly sexual, but we understand why a teenage girl with raging hormones and a lack of proper boundaries might want to sleep with a man who is paying attention to her. Monroe is humanized not because he deserves fair treatment, but because Minnie does. He is a monster, but he’s not just a monster. The movie shows that her choices are valid and understandable even if they’re wrong.
And those humanized characters fill the rest of the movie. Charlotte, Minnie’s boundary-less mother isn’t just negligent. She’s a woman who became a mother too young, spent too many years trying to play the good wife, and is now legitimately trying broaden her horizons and find herself. The fact that that journey is aided and fueled by large numbers of drugs seems born out of the time and her need to act out. It’s not only understandable that she would act that way, but that it wouldn’t seem that out of the ordinary. Likewise, Minnie’s best friend Kimmie could have become a caricature “bad influence.” But she isn’t. I mean, sure, she absolutely introduces and encourages some risky behavior, but she also at times acts as Minnie’s conscious. And after engaging in some acts that make my nearly middle-aged teeth clench, they talk about their feelings surrounding those acts. They make promises to each other about how they’ll behave in the future. They push each other to grow up while also holding each other back when they go to fast. You know, they act like teenage girlfriends.
The credit for having a young, female lead with sexual agency should probably be split between Phoebe Gloeckner, the author of the graphic novel that served as source material, and Marielle Heller who directed the movie and adapted the screenplay. While I don’t want to argue that a male director wouldn’t have been able to accurately portray what it’s like to be a sexually aggressive yet confused 15-year-old girl, I can’t pretend I’m convinced that male director would have done as good of a job. Much in the same way I wouldn’t be convinced that a cis woman would be able to accurately portray what it feels like to get kicked in the balls. Luckily we don’t have to what a terrible shitbag that movie might be. Instead we get to watch one where a girl’s mistakes, sex, friendship and confusion are treated like everyone else’s: normal.