Messy and hard and invariably ending in tears: so might the sexual (mis)adventures of the average adolescent be described (Oo-er). Yet, so seldom does it ever appear that way on film. Aside from the occasional male comedy surrounding on the Odyssean quest to lose the title of ‘virgin’, the kind of twee teendom we see in film is so heavily watered down, as if filtered through a nostalgia-tinted lens that shuts out all the messiness. Burgeoning sexuality, particularly in the case of women, has long been deemed a subject too taboo for mainstream screens. The view that women, more specifically young women, are passive vessels of untainted purity has proved remarkably persistent. But The Diary of a Teenage Girl opts to embrace the messiness and present a picture of teenage experience free of that doe-eyed sentimentality.”
40 seconds into The Diary of a Teenage Girl and you might be thinking you’ve seen this all before; with its softened indie sheen, vintage soundtrack and hand-drawn cartoons coming to life, the J-word is never far from your mind: Juno. Thankfully, The Diary of a Teenage Girl does away with the grating quirkiness to offer a vision of feminine sexuality that is of a starker, bolder nature. Adaped from Phoebe Gloeckner’s source text, writer-director Marielle Heller has crafted an intricate insight into the erotically-charged tendencies of the teenage mind.
The film proceeds as most films of this ilk do, with an extensive playing out of the Electra complex. In her opening narration, Minnie (Bel Powley) proudly announces that she has just had sex for the first time. The figurative spanner in the works here comes when we discover that her sexual conquest, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), is a man twice her age and, more alarmingly, her mother’s boyfriend. But the mention of spanners is slightly misleading in this context, for Minnie never shows any sense of shame or remorse for her liberated libido. Utterly unapologetic, she purports the progressive and deeply feared notion that teenage girls are having sex and are actually enjoying it.
Scattered throughout are moments of light comedy, but they never overpower the film’s measured dramatic tone. What is perhaps most refreshing is that it steers clear of the familiar dominant/submissive, Master/Pupil dynamics and instead depicts a sexual relationship that seems, perversely, more childlike than adult. As the film’s captivating heroine, Powley electrifies, and would be the most film’s most valuable asset, were it not for the intense aesthetic pleasure it delivers. It is undoubtedly one of the most visually enticing releases of the year thus far, and certainly the most sophisticated, at times understated, at others visceral, and, at one point, appearing to recreate the Sir John Everett Millais painting ‘Ophelia’. The end result is a sublimely realised reinvigoration of teenage identity in cinema, another feminist triumph in a summer of feminist triumphs *cough*Mad Max*cough*.