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'The Diary of a Teenage Girl' Is a Story of Sexual Abuse—and Female Empowerment

Sony Pictures Classics

Minnie Goetze, the 15-year-old lead of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, is an easy character to identify with. It’s not that most women share her teenage experiences—losing her virginity to her mother’s boyfriend or engaging in a threesome with him and her best friend. But her desires and insecurities, the everyday sexual concerns of a schoolgirl, have rarely been so honestly and seriously depicted in film.

Hollywood’s summer blockbuster season has been dominated this year by movies made by women (Pitch Perfect 2), for women (Magic Mike XXL), and about women (Mad Max: Fury Road, Trainwreck, Inside Out). Whether that’s because feminism has conquered Hollywood or Hollywood has co-opted feminism is another question entirely, but it’s undeniable that the triumphs and tribulations of women have claimed a stake in a space formerly reserved for men. And more importantly, at least to studios, these movies have made enough money to prove their worth.

Next in this line of female-driven movies is Diary, opening in theaters on Friday. Written and directed by a woman, it’s unlikely to make a box office splash, but it’s a startlingly tough, authentic depiction of budding womanhood. Based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s semi-autobiographical graphic novel of the same name, the movie follows Minnie as she starts an affair with Monroe, her mom’s boyfriend, under the nose of her drugged-up, beaten-down mother (Kristen Wiig). The movie stays true to its graphic novel roots by incorporating animated versions of the author’s illustrations. While the gimmick has fallen flat in other movies, like Daniel Radcliffe’s 2013 rom-com What If, it adds an extra dimension to Minnie’s fevered fantasies here. They round out her character, giving insight into her thoughts and a glimpse into her creative aspirations—all the while reminding us that she is, essentially, still a child. For all of her sexual bravado, Minnie still sees herself through an art form primarily associated with children.

Alexander Skarsgard is perfectly cast as this story’s Humbert Humbert, sporting the universally accepted signifier for unsavory sexual proclivities—a mustache. But Minnie is no Lolita, who could be heard crying every night despite Humbert’s insistence that she seduced him. Minnie enthusiastically pursues Monroe, fantasizes about him while in the bath, and tries to use the illicitness of their affair as sexual capital. She’s crazy about sex, and she’s not afraid of doing something about it, particularly in drug-happy, sexually liberated 1970s San Francisco where the movie is set.

It’s a story of sexual abuse, but the director Marielle Heller never depicts Minnie as only a victim. Diary is a story of female empowerment, and Minnie is not a sex object, but an unapologetic participant. At times, as she tries to manipulate, seduce, and guilt Monroe into continuing their affair, the power dynamics almost seem reversed. Bel Powley, who makes her movie debut as Minnie, delivers a layered performance that carries the movie even as it starts to drag in its second half. Minnie is a mess of contradictions, at once childish and womanly, brazen yet vulnerable, irritating but lovable. She’s not the girl next door or the manic pixie dream girl; she’s a young woman determined to get what she wants, even if what she wants is deeply misguided.

Diary is more interested in Minnie’s feelings than in passing judgment—though zoomed-out shots of tiny Minnie next to middle-aged Monroe highlight the grotesqueness of their coupling. Insecurities about her body, her quest for love through sex, and her longing for external validation are lifelong desires that happen to be particularly heightened in teenage years. At one point Minnie yearns for someone to press his body against hers so that she knows that she is alive, a cry for love so poignant it’s hard to fault Minnie for seeking it wherever she can. And as Wiig and Skarsgard’s characters make clear, no one, however grown up, stops looking for those same things.

“This is for all the girls when they have grown,” Minnie says into the tape recorder that serves as her diary. Listening to hers can feel uncomfortably like reliving adolescence, even if the individual details are different. For all the psychedelic drugs and sexual experimentation, Minnie’s story is like any adolescent's: awkward, funny, painful, and something to grow out of.