The Diary of a Teenage Girl is one of the most authentic and important coming-of-age films of our generation. An honest feminist fairytale, it tells the story of a girl who finds love in a relationship forbidden by society and law. She sets out on a quest to learn more about her own desires and feelings, to discover the difference between sex and love and deciding whether she really needs a man to make her happy.
I almost scrolled past the the icon on Netflix, most likely due to the fact I visually associated The Diary of a Teenage Girl’s poster with the popular early teen film Angus Thongs and Perfect Snogging. Most millennial girls will remember Angus Thongs with a fond nostalgia of sleepovers and a pre-bearded Aaron Johnson. We all saw a bit ourselves in the clumsy, socially awkward and boy-obsessed Georgia. But if, like me, you have attempted to recapture your 13 year old self and have re-watched the film recently then you may have also been struck down with a serious episode of cringing and possibly self-loathing – especially when you remember quoting the film repeatedly during your Year Eight form time. But anyway, do not be deceived by the marketing poster, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is far from Georgia’s “Ace-Gang” and it would be a shame if anyone missed out on it due to this misconception.
Marielle Heller’s incredibly well crafted film shows a 15 year old girl, Minnie, beginning to explore her sexuality through her relationship with her mother’s 35 year old boyfriend, Monroe. Despite the controversial topic, Heller manages to tell Minnie’s story without any judgement. It is not your typical boy meets girl, they fall in love, teenage Cinderella fantasy that the title and Minnie’s Disneyesque name may suggest. Nothing is perfect in this story. It is messy, emotional, hilarious but, above all, honest. The film delves into the confused and libidinous mind of a 15 year old girl in the 70s and aims to expose and challenge preconceptions of ‘underage sexualisation’.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl caused major controversy in its UK release due to the BBFC’s decision to give the film an age certificate of 18. Yet this film is about a 15 year old, for 15 year olds. It may have a somewhat disturbing topic but so do a million other rated-15 films. One of the concerns and ‘need’ for the age restriction was the presence of underage sex. Yes, this is against the law…but so is murder, and that pops up in films all the way down to the PG-rated, ‘family friendly’ blockbusters. I’m pretty sure everyone has seen The Lion King. The argument in response to this is that it is the graphic nature of the sex scenes. They are not graphic. Yes there are moments of nudity but only side profile during sex scenes. When frontal nudity does occur, Minnie is never sexualised for the viewer. To us she is simply a wide-eyed, average teenage girl. The first instant of frontal nudity is Minnie – played brilliantly by Bel Powley (who was 23 at the time of shooting) – looking at the reflection of her naked body in the mirror (which is only shot above the waist from the front). As the New York Times review points out Minnie is always the subject of Monroe’s gaze, or her own, she is never ours. In fact, most of the shots are close ups of her face, it is lit and framed in a way that we mostly focus on Powley’s striking eyes, not her body. She doesn’t look overtly sexual or promiscuous but through the narrative, her voice-over and her drawings, we explore her deepest thoughts and, most importantly, we come to understand her. Groundbreakingly this film shows a girl with a strong enthusiasm for sex without the classic slut shaming.
The producers of the film have argued that the film is important as teenage boys are taught all the time that sexual feelings are natural – queue the god-awful ‘boys will be boys’ expression – but there are limited sources out there for girls who want to have sex that suggest it is a natural desire. There is something fundamentally wrong with the way teenage girls are taught to approach sex and this film attempts to address that. However, due to the BBFC’s failure to recognise this, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is inaccessible to girls who need it most – 15 to 17 year-olds who society have taught to repress and keep quiet about any sexual thoughts or feelings they may have. Seeing Minnie leaning against a wall talking to a cartoon asking the big question “What is wrong with me?” […] “I’m overwhelmed by my all-consuming thoughts about sex and men”, may be the comfort a young girl needs in order to understand that she is not alone. Even in schools today girls are told to dress appropriately as to not ‘distract their fellow male classmates’. Teenage boy’s sexual feelings are seen as normal, acceptable and out of their control and all that can be done about it is for the girls that are distracting them to cover up. But if a girl has sex on the mind and is distracted by such desires, she is labeled either a slut or just plain weird. The Diary of a Teenage Girl provides a space for these double standards to be challenged and for a girl to speak freely about her emotions and her distractions.
Sex and drugs are experimented with throughout the film, and yet at no point do we feel we are being preached to and being told to judge and condemn this kind of behaviour. There is no patronising moral undertone. However, I must make it clear that, although it does not instruct us to judge, it also does not glorify or encourage Minnie’s choices in any way. They are illegal, they can be dangerous. But as a spectator we are left to think for ourselves, to make our own decisions – a refreshing concept for a coming-of-age film. And when reflecting back on the film, it is made clear that nothing is simply right or wrong and that morals are just a little more complex than that.
With its beautiful blend of comedy, emotion, stunning animation, 70s soundtrack and jarringly disturbing subject matter it is a must see “for all the girls who’ve grown” (Minnie, The Diary of a Teenage Girl).
(The film was released in 2015 and so I am aware I am a little behind on the review, but it is now available on UK Netflix and I highly recommend giving it a watch.)