Sexuality and the coming-of-age in ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’

In an age where sexuality is a defining label and femininity is an unspoken requirement, it is rare to come upon a raw, bone-close reality such as that presented in ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’. Filmed in a mere 24 days and based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel, this swelteringly authentic comedy-drama carries us through the tempestuous teenage-hood of Minnie Goetz, as she attempts to discover herself through the endless requirements that come with being a 14-year-old girl. We are given access to the sorest and darkest aspects of her ‘coming-of-age’ and find ourselves caught along-side her in the excitement and secrecy of an unconventional love-triangle. Unfortunately, the base of this triangle is formed by the supporting column of her life, her mother, and the wobbly presence of her devastating obsession: her mother’s boyfriend. These exciting and lustful engagements soon become an impossible reality that Minnie herself seems to inevitably and uncontrollably lead.

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We initially feel a looming fear for Minnie, who, after a series of inappropriately encouraging situations, engages in a secretive sexual relationship with her Mother’s boyfriend. However, the entirety of the film seems to completely ignore moral guidelines, without ever mentioning, within its narration, the darkness of the events. Nonetheless, the story somehow feels like it is taking a natural pathway. The connection between Monroe (Alex Skarsgård) and Minnie (Bel Powley) feels so effortless and predestined that we almost seem to forget the perversity of it. Hence, for the viewer to feel this security within the abnormality of the relationship is, in itself, a perverse position to be in and therefore an ironic outcome that serves to further enforce the major themes of the film.

Regardless of these absurd interpretations and understandings that the viewer is subconsciously engulfed in, the director (Merren Heller) skilfully manages to guide us through this “wrong” situation in a way that suffers no judgement within the film itself. This creates a true bond between the viewer – who has most probably experienced (to some degree/extent) the concerns that Minnie has – and the protagonist. Indeed, the real power of this feature lies primarily in its sincerity. It offers a layer of truth that most viewers will be able to apply to various aspects of their personal experiences, perhaps to their teenage years or simply to moments where they encountered new emotions/realisations. It is this grasping gold that makes ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’ so applicable and accessible to the viewer, as it exploits the ability to personally engage in order to make it one of the most memorable films of 2015.

Themes that are pertinent to the larger umbrella of ‘Coming-of-Age’ are the focal ones explored in this film. There is a deep exploration of loneliness, self-discovery and the idea that your worth is dependant on somebody else’s attention. An extremely poignant scene embodies all these feelings into one, as Minnie stands naked in front of the mirror in a moment of self-exploration. We can understand through her expression that there is not a sense of self-hate but rather a sense of self-unawareness. As the camera cuts between long-shots and close-ups of the teenager, she attempts to gather a sense of her own body. There is a strong feeling of detachment from the person that Minnie is, and the body that contains her. This genius moment is one to be truly admired, as it is a pivotal moment of understanding for the viewer, who has access to what it feels like to be a teenage girl in an extremely self-conscious world; where frustration and criticism make us feel disconnected from the shell that is stuck to us determinedly – our body.

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There is an immense power in the way this story is told. We live through the narration of Minnie and we experience things solely through her perspective. Therefore, we are restricted to understanding the situation only through her filters, consequently engaging in a full comprehension of the oscillation of emotions that a typical teenager would experience. The point of view narration is not limiting as it does not require an “embodiment” experience. It can be fully appreciated and truly lived from an external position too, one where the viewer is allowed to apply personal experience and knowledge in order to deepen their involvement in the story. True to its original writers’ form, the film often plays with the intermission of psychedelic blooms and grotesque forms; these spread across the frame as animated cartoons but take on a much more meaningful insight into the true mechanism that makes a teenage girl. There is an invasion of gargantuan and deformed women, distorted representations of the female anatomy and an attempt, through misplaced flowers and drawings of hate, to explain the emotional rollercoaster that is ‘growing up’. These cartoons are much needed to explain how irrational and often surreal and inexplicable the emotions felt during times of teen frustration and self-finding are.

Often, the coming-of-age of a female is represented as a delicate and beautified event, that is supposed to shape her emotive development and make of her a “woman”. For example, in typical chick flicks such as ‘Angus Thongs and Perfect Snogging’, or even more violent examples like ‘The Virgin Diaries’, we exclusively see only the very surface of emotions and confront them, therefore, only as peripheral observers. However, Heller shifts this unrealistic focus completely and drags us through the true dawning of this experience. This is a perspective all-inclusive of disappointments, ecstasy, awkward jolts and traumatic understandings. It is almost as if we are experiencing this dawning experience through a timeline that is built by the various events of the story, that eventually add up to create a greater whole; a rollercoaster of ups and downs that make the film entire.

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 The film is reflective of the chain that female teenagehood and sexuality have tied around its ankle. In ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’ female desire is presented as something equally as important and relevant as that of the male. The female, in this case, Minnie, becomes a vital initiator and participator of sex, rather than the passive receiver/object of acceptance. Heller breaks the preconceived notion that women must engage in sexual activity only when powered by love. Indeed, this perception is completely destroyed in one of the final scenes where Monroe has decided to settle down with Minnie whom he now “loves”, but she has realised her “love” was simply based on her need for attention. Once Minnie comprehends and accepts that the feeling of love she fed off was merely a need for acceptance and worth, she immediately knows that she was settling for a situation because it was new and available. This collection of final scenes, is again, perfectly representative of the fluctuating quality that reigns the emotions of teenagers and reflects how swiftly and incoherently feelings can change during these times.

The aesthetics of the film are extremely representative of the tonalities and underlying meanings of the story. The colours are muted by the washed-out style of 70’s San Francisco and there is an almost tangible feeling of sun-bleached harbours. The action is sustained by potent music such as Iggy Pop and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And the characters give life to the mise en scene, as they create a synergy of energy. An extremely special mention must go to Ms Bel Powely for her interpretation of Minnie Goetz. Her open, bouncy and often hilarious embodiment of teenage insecurity is a refreshing and all-too-relatable presentation. She manages to maintain a light-hearted fluency that allows us to slide through the difficult moments a little bit easier. Her performance is perfectly sustained by the talented Alex Skarsgard who manages to stray away from the cliché of the sleazy paedophile and instead embodies the authoritative, yet caring, Monroe, who ultimately falls for Minnie, harder than she ever could have for him. There is a sadness to his final drug-induced confession of love for Minnie, as we understand that the adoration of an adult can actually be – regardless of how it’s manifested – more concrete and dangerous than the buoyant love of a teenager. And therefore more devastating when shattered with a non-mutual feeling.

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Essentially, the point of the film is that Minnie, such as all teenagers before her, had to make mistakes in order to truly fulfil her “coming of age”. ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’ is a reliable and comforting piece of art. It is a vital tool for teenagers everywhere and it has given (and will surely continue to give) young women everywhere the confidence and motivation to stand safely alone and give reliance to their one true source of happiness: themselves.

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