It’s hard to find a film that accurately and truthfully portrays the sexual experiences of a teenage girl – strange considering it’s a subject that concerns half of the world’s population. As such, Californian writer/director Marielle Heller’s astonishing debut film, The Diary Of A Teenage Girl, feels revolutionary in refusing to trivialise its characters’ natural feelings, while also deftly traversing such an emotional and ethical minefield.
It opens with 15-year-old Minnie Goetze (played by 23-year-old British actor Bel Powley) declaring to her audio diary matter-of-factly “I had sex today.” However, she hasn’t lost her virginity to a fellow classmate or teenage boy, but to Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), a man 20 years her senior and her mother Charlotte’s (Kristen Wiig) boyfriend.
Rather than using the relationship to frame Minnie as a homewrecker hell-bent on destroying her mother’s life, the 1970s-set The Diary Of A Teenage Girl seeks to deliver an accurate portrayal of a young woman’s sexual awakening, and all the insecurities, emotions and curiosities that come with it.
The film has is based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s own experiences growing up in San Francisco, which she recorded in an adolescent diary, then initially turned into 2002 graphic novel of the same name.
Speaking on the phone from her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Gloeckner says, “Everything that happens to Minnie happened to me.”
‘Everything’ isn’t limited to just having an affair with her mother’s boyfriend, though; the book and film also examine Minnie’s relationships with classmates and, later, a girl, Tabatha, who she becomes involved with after running away from home when her mother finds out about the affair and suggests she marries Monroe. The pair take refuge in a heroin den and Tabatha eventually goes on to pimp Minnie out so she can get a fix.
In the film, Minnie expresses insecurities about her body – frequently asking Monroe if he thinks she’s fat – and how other people see her. “I wasn’t really sure if I wanted him or anyone else to fuck me, but I was afraid to pass up the chance because I might never get another,” says the character, explaining how she first came to sleep with Monroe.
“In this world, pressure is an influencer and probably the root cause of every action,” Gloeckner replies when asked if she felt pressure to lose her virginity. “What you’re talking about is putting pressure on oneself because one is insecure. I think teenagers want to have sex, and I think [having sex for the first time] is a big deal.” She pauses to speak to her 16-year-old daughter and her boyfriend who are in the room with her, re-asking them the question. “They say it’s a huge thing; it’s like losing your innocence.”
Although the film is set 40-odd years ago, Gloeckner doesn’t think the basics of the story would be much different if it took place today. “Growing up now is very different in many ways, but essentially I think people are the same because they haven’t changed in thousands of years,” she says. “If you took Minnie and put her in a different place or time and she was in a similar relational situation, something would have happened. You could say now Minnie would have a cell phone or maybe sex would have been looked at differently, but there still would have been a stigma.”
If the story of The Diary Of A Teenage Girl was playing out in 2015, who does Gloeckner think Minnie’s role models would be, and are there any good role models for young girls in today’s society?
“I don’t know, what do you think of The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen?” she asks out loud, before shouting our question to her daughter and delivering a bleak response. “She says there are none.” Moments later she adds: “I know my elder daughter admires Lena Dunham and likes her show [Girls]. I’ve only seen one episode but women in their twenties seem to love her.”
Given the sheer weight of discussion around feminism and equality online, where different voices are able to express their views rather than languish in the shadows, it seems odd that such an important film would be kept away from those that might relate to it most and find some kind of solace in its themes. Yet the British Board Of Film Classification (BBFC) have given The Diary Of A Teenage Girl an 18 certificate. Such a certificate is understandable in the case of films like the 1995 cult classic Kids, which explicitly explores careless approaches by teenagers to sex and drugs, leading, in the film, to HIV infection and rape. With The Diary Of A Teenage Girl, it’s far less obvious why it’s being classified 18. The film doesn’t go as far as Gloeckner’s book, alluding to Minnie being exploited for drugs rather than explicitly showing it and those involved in the film are unimpressed with the classification. Wahida Begum, head of its distribution company, Vertigo, was even moved to release a statement knocking the decision. “The film has been viewed purely by men at the BBFC and they have missed the point of the film and its message,” she commented.
Gloeckner has her own take on the matter. “When you’re accustomed to looking at another individual as the object of desire – you’re watching a million porn movies about high school girls, or whatever benign popular film with girls in it – it’s kind of okay because you’ve seen it so many times,” she explains. “Those men on that panel, they grew up in that culture, so they’ve seen those kinds of films. Suddenly, they see a girl who’s a full human being who can turn around and have eye contact and say, ‘Hi, I’m here. I’m just like you.’ That’s very disturbing [for them] because it destroys the fantasy. Their impulse is to smash it on the head. In a fantasy, you cannot acknowledge the humanity of the ‘other’.”
What makes The Diary Of A Teenage Girl so special is the fact that it presents the young woman at the centre of its story without judgment. It doesn’t gloss over Minnie’s true feelings about sex (“I really like getting fucked,” she declares at one point) and it doesn’t demonise anyone involved, least of all Minnie. Instead, it’s a rare depiction of the truth of growing up – one that should be an accepted norm rather than an oddity.