Jenny on The Diary of a Teenage Girl
The scene is a classroom on the first day of term in a college of further education where as a very young graduate many decades ago I have been hired to teach teenage students. I am bemused to be sent outside, along with all the girls in the class, while the head of the college addresses the boys. Why? One of the boys kindly explains a few days later. ‘It was about wanking, Miss, he says. ‘Sir told us we had to be polite and keep our hands out of our pockets.’
Ah, those were the days. Teenage boys were assumed to be in dire need of rules to rein them in, while girls were sweet little virginal persons with no sexual feelings who needed protection from the overheated male herd. As a teenage girl myself in the very recent past, I knew all too well how untrue this was, but assumed that I was somehow unique.
The Diary of Teenage Girl knows better. Minnie is a 15 year old who records her sexual adventures on a tape recorder in San Francisco, 1976. She gets into a highly inappropriate relationship with her mother’s layabout lover, she has jack-rabbiting sex with a boy from her school class, she experiments with drugs, she experiments with a girlfriend - and she is without shame or guilt. Minnie’s self-absorbed mother (Kirsten Wiig) has little time for proper parenting, her pompous stepfather is mostly absent and her father long gone, so Minnie longs for love, longs to be touched, longs to be noticed and to be special to someone. She aspires to be a cartoonist, and wonderfully authentic teenage-style hand drawn animations appear at frequent intervals in the film.
The most brilliant thing about this brilliant, confident, stylish and funny film is the way it captures the voice of a 15 year old girl. Minnie is not ‘mature’ or ‘old for her years’, she is exactly what so many 15 year old girls are: articulate but in a recognisably teenage way, full of bravado yet insecure, capable of massive misjudgements yet possessing a moral core that you know will never be compromised – and she has no idea how beautiful she is.
The contrast between this film and the smoothly sanitized teen films of Hollywood, some of whose trailers preceded our viewing, is comic indeed. Minnie is not well dressed – she wears terrible flares throughout. She badly needs a new haircut. But she is not a Lolita temptress-cum-victim. Nor is she the intense outsider of Blue is the Warmest Color or the Troubled Teen of Andrea Arnold’s excellent Fish Tank. The film does not condone or condemn. Somehow we know that Minnie’s passion is her drawing and that when her fan letter to a real life graphic artist (Aline Kominsky) is warmly answered, this is all the encouragement she needs. Although set safely in the past, the film is of course about contemporary themes and this may be mightily uncomfortable for some viewers.
The performances are terrific. Bel Powley, a British 23 year old plays Minnie with an intensity and naturalness that is electrifying. The Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård plays the boyfriend so flawlessly that you can see exactly why Minnie could be entranced by him, as well as exactly why she eventually realises that the guy is a creep. The film is shot in soft, sludgy tones that capture perfectly the foggy sun and shabby exteriors of 1970s San Francisco as well as the full-on ghastliness of 1970s fashion, smoking, make-up and décor – the decade that never knew it had not an iota of taste.
The movie has an 18 Certificate but I do hope that clever teenage girls exactly like our heroine will somehow find a way to see it. Its ultimate messages are: Girls, you need to love yourselves first. When you do this, everything else follows. And by the way, it’s OK to like sex.