Set in the late 1970s, The Diary of a Teenage Girl feels like a film that could have been made then, too, long before the era of trigger warnings. First-time director-screenwriter Marielle Heller takes a matter-of-fact, unperturbed approach to subject matter that some modern viewers will find "triggering" indeed. But her film doesn't glamorize the misadventures of its heroine any more than it condemns them, and the result is fresh in every sense.
Diary is based on the 2002 work of the same name by artist Phoebe Gloeckner, in which San Francisco aspiring artist Minnie Goetze narrates her 15th year using both text and cartoon panels. On screen, Minnie (Bel Powley) draws in a notebook and confides her secrets to a tape deck. And she has a few: As the film opens, she's glowing with excitement because she just lost her virginity to her mother's 35-year-old boyfriend.
Whatever we might call that sexual initiation now — statutory rape, perhaps child abuse — Minnie herself views it as a consummation devoutly to be wished. In flashbacks, we watch her make awkward advances to her mom's beau, Monroe (Alexander Skårsgard), a fashionably mustachioed slacker who seems to regard Minnie with bemusement. He doesn't come across as a predator, but neither does he strenuously object. Soon the two are hiding their ongoing relationship from Minnie's coke-snorting, party-girl mom (Kristen Wiig).
That relationship clearly isn't the rhapsodic idyll that Minnie describes to her tape recorder and depicts on her sketchpad. Nor is it sordid or traumatizing — and the untoward consequences, when they inevitably arrive, feel believable and true to the period. While Wiig's character isn't highly developed, we recognize in her the warring influences of a 1950s upbringing and a flower-powered refusal of inhibitions. A queen of mixed messages, this mom encourages Minnie to make herself alluring to men — but isn't prepared for a daughter who craves sex without apologies.
Asked whether Diary is autobiographical, Gloeckner has conceded that she based it on her own diary but had to distance herself from her adolescent self before she could present her with empathy. (Actual teenagers, she notes, "hate themselves.")
Heller takes a similar approach, keeping her narrative firmly in Minnie's perspective, which veers between self-deprecation ("Am I fat?") and self-glorification. The whole film has a fuzzy-edged, memory-faded glow, with occasional animation and other visual effects bringing the heroine's imagination to life. Her inner life is sometimes raunchy, sometimes romantic. Taking a bath, Minnie briefly becomes John Everett Millais' Ophelia, a tableau that emphasizes her borderline-ruinous yearning to be loved.
For all her precocious pretensions and ugly mistakes, Minnie is impossible to dislike, in part because Powley's unaffected performance grounds the character. Her enormous eyes express a winning eagerness to experience as much of life as she can, as fast as she can — a hunger and vulnerability that anyone who has been a teenager will appreciate.
As a coming-of-age tale, Diary reminded me of Louis Malle's Murmur of the Heart (1971), which takes a similarly frank approach to sexual awakening and breaks a major human taboo with a shrug. In both films, the protagonists are such particular cases, their worlds developed in such rich, loving detail, that we can't see their stories as cautionary tales or cheap provocations.
There's some Rushmore in this movie's DNA, too; it celebrates Minnie's frenetic creativity while reminding us that artists, especially budding ones, can be the world's most selfish people. We often find ourselves laughing at Minnie, but we don't like her any less for it. And we recognize her as a striver, a survivor — anything but a victim.