I’m a very jaded filmgoer, as things go. I’ve seen a lot. I’m willing to accept a lot. Morally ambiguous characters tend not to leave much of a mark on me, and the horrors of the world are the horrors of the world. So, I was surprised when I was actually a little uncomfortable watching The Diary of a Teenage Girl. The film is adapted from the alt comic “memoirs” of Phoebe Gloeckner by writer/director Marielle Heller, and has received a tremendous amount of attention as a feminist film. It is, certainly, in many respects. The film prominently features distinct female voices and speaks to the strange individualized experiences of an awkward young woman who discovers – at a relatively tender age – just how much she loves sex. Minnie (Bel Powley), our wide-eyed protagonist, is tenacious in her exploration and often very much in control of the ways she decides to use her body. Some of these uses feel self-exploitive, and as Minnie transgresses boundary after boundary – propositioning older men, pretending to be a prostitute with her best friend on a night out – I found myself wondering what the difference was between controlled exploration and self-destruction, and why a film with such a complicated, troubled relationship with the body of its protagonist has been held up as somehow innovative.
Minnie is a hurricane of raging hormones, actively seeking out the attentions of her mom’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard) and others who strike her fancy. Minnie is a unique voice, and also a bit of a frustrating one. She’s naïve in many of her exploits, and actively records an audio confessional custom made for getting her into certain trouble. Monroe is her most active conquest, and a curious blend of creep and confidant. He’s young enough and fun enough for us to understand Minnie’s attraction to him, smarmy enough to allow her friends to immediately comment on how disgusting her interest in him is. Because he’s played by Skarsgard, the film seems to walk a fine line between asking the audience to understand the appeal (for Minnie) of the queasy statutory activities the two characters partake in, and, well, kinda wanting us to just forget how gross we should actually be feeling as they confess their feelings for one another or engage in routine living room seductions.
This is something different than the tone struck by Fish Tank (flat out sad) or the events of last year’s Nymphomaniac (too cynical or clinical for us to actually care). With Diary, Marielle Heller gives us a character we can actually care for and shows us just how into constructing her life that person is. Because Minnie is excited, not depressed, because she seems to be building confidence instead of shrinking into herself, because she seems to know that she is in the process of becoming someone instead of arriving at something inevitable, her story is made unique. Even as we know that she is, at least on some level, being taken advantage of, we have to trust the character to interpret situations on her own and to eventually excise herself from situations as the become – for her – less a sign of her own empowerment and far more a mark of something unhealthy.
While the film manages to be relatively upbeat about Minnie, I couldn’t shake the way it seemed to be tracking a type of downfall instead of some road to self-discovery. By the film’s conclusion, Minnie has moved from flexing her own sexual power to making a series of decisions that leave her emotionally and psychologically drained, looking more like a victim of recklessness than a confident kid. This is where I become confused over the arguments I’ve seen for the film as deeply feminist. People seem quick to cite the honest acknowledgment of Minnie’s prowess and the bold depiction of its possibility as a step towards something, but the film seems to drag that too far. By the end, it seems strangely conservative about its worst case scenarios. She moves from a curious type of empowerment to a destructive train wreck (to herself and others). So I have to wonder, is this actually the source of something more feminist, more transgressive? Is it the fact of Minnie’s sexuality we should be applauding or the way the film shows us just how willing the world is to take advantage of a young woman’s confidence? I’d have to go with the latter. Diary of a Teenage Girl feels weighed down with predators and dark energies; emotionally manipulative moments that trouble its waters and make us see something less darkly comic than just kinda dark. The world seems to be waiting for Minnie’s coming out, and too many fringe characters are prepared to jump at that moment.