'The Diary of a Teenage Girl' Is Essential, Not Sophomoric, Viewing

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Bel Powley as Minnie Goetze in "The Diary of a Teenage Girl." Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

"Dear Diary: Everything is so loveless and mediocre."

Meet the sometimes hapless, often hopeful and always horny 15-year-old Minnie Goetze, the heroine of Marielle Heller's coming-of-age dark comedy The Diary of a Teenage Girl. At once a wide-eyed high-schooler, a talented cartoonist-in-training and a cynical young adult, Minnie (played by newcomer Bel Powley) takes viewers along as she reports her observations of growing up in 1970s San Francisco. Through this, she unapologetically details her very real fears and insecurities, muses about the future and attempts to find understanding with her mother (Kristen Wiig)—all with dazzling Technicolor animations illustrating her lysergic imagination.

The puberty, pimples and pizza parties of teenagehood aside, Minnie's grappling with some serious questions of love, adultery and sex—because she's sleeping with her mother's boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). Naturally, some audiences may admittedly be uncomfortable with this controversial notion, as well as with the (many) other sex-positive scenes where Minnie's running the show. To wit: Upon losing her virginity, Minnie triumphantly draws a bloody "x" on Monroe's leg, later examining her fingernail as a scientist might under a microscope. Yet the film does not condone nor glorify Minnie's decisions, as troublesome as they may be. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is instead salient commentary on how young women—in the attempt to quell raging hormones during that bizarre stasis between childhood and adulthood—have been rendered in media and film only as silent, as punchlines, as madonnas, as whores or simply as the objects of boys' desires.

A theater actor by trade, Marielle Heller made her directing debut with Diary. Yet before it hit the silver screen, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which opened this weekend, was a graphic novel written and illustrated by Phoebe Gloeckner published in 2002. Heller's sister gave her the book as a gift years ago, and she soon fell hard for the character Minnie. She tells Newsweek she began feeling a connection that hadn't ever resonated with the likes of other coming of age staples, such as American Pie and Superbad, which deconstruct the awkwardness (and farts) that comprise teenage boyhood. "[Diary] made me feel so much less alone. It made me feel like I wasn't a freak," she tells Newsweek. "I thought, Oh. This is what it feels like to be reflected in art."

So Heller approached Gloeckner with the idea of converting the book into a musical, and the author, while skeptical, gave her the green light because of her charm, persistence and vision. "I was just laughing. What does she want to do with a play? But she did it, and it was great," Gloeckner says. After a successful 2010 off-Broadway run, the story still felt fresh enough to evolve into something more. Heller began writing a screenplay that would bring Minnie's crucial story to the big screen and that would illustrate her as the funny, perceptive and vulnerable person she was. "We feel very comfortable seeing very fleshed out, flawed humans in men," Heller says, commenting that she was struck by the frank, often-flawed Minnie. "But when it comes to girls it can only be what we're comfortable with, idealized versions of themselves."

British actress Bel Powley, who plays Minnie in the film, read The Diary of a Teenage Girl script and was similarly astonished. "I'd never read such an honest depiction of what it really feels like to be a teenager—you're so earnest and irrational, and everything really feels like life or death," she says. Even Skarsgard, who grew up in admittedly more libertine Sweden, was immediately taken with the story. "Why have I never seen anything like this before?" he asks. Heller cast Powley after she sent in an audition tape, and with a nod to the note illustrating how much she'd connected with Minnie.

Three months before shooting, the 20-something Powley had to regress back to her old self, in a way. "I had to go further and think, Wait: How did I walk when I was a teenager? How did I hold myself? How did I speak?" She tells Newsweek that she modeled Minnie's style of walking on "a baby deer learning to walk," in the words of Heller. It's a fitting analogy: In a way, teenagers are young bucks with everything ahead of them, which is at once a frightening and a fantastic prospect.

Yet the notion that teenagers are in a distinct stage of life is a fairly new concept, one that was developed around World War II. Before then, young women and men were expected to make the transition from childhood much more quickly, enlisting in the service or getting married and beginning families. The word adolescent, which has been in use in the English language since the 15th century, means "becoming adult." But teenagers weren't recognized as an individual sociological group until arguably the emergence of post-war capitalism, when marketing departments realized that this demographic was one to which they could sell, sell, sell.

And young women have historically shuffled along in the innocence of childhood as young daughters until they are sexualized, at which point they were often relegated to the roles of mothers and wives. Seldom were they able to encompass various roles simultaneously, or have the liberty to engage in some more libertine parts of being a young person without the fear of stigmatization. And The Diary of a Teenage Girl calls bullshit to those societal assertions that women are incapable of complex observations or that they don't bear their own desires, sexually or otherwise, or that their choices are constant fodder for moralization. This is made all the more powerful by the seismic Patty Hearst trial, which is mentioned at various times in the film. It anchors the story as a sort of 1970s period piece, and the young Hearst's ongoing troubles curiously mirror Minnie's questionable decisions: Does she know about what she's doing? Who is responsible for these actions? Who's a victim?

Ironically, many a teenager may have to sneak into the theater to try to see The Diary of a Teenage Girl: In the U.K., viewers must be 18 to even see the film, with a parent or otherwise, because of its "strong sexual" content. While the film was one of the most buzzed-about new pictures at Sundance, Heller admits that she received some off-base comments from early viewers about it potentially glorifying pedophilia, though this couldn't be further off the mark. "Some people are going to take this the wrong way, but luckily at least getting to talk about it is helpful," she says, shrugging. "It can help frame the conversation."

Inciting the conversation begins with, well, listening to girls. At this point in time, girls have more outlets than ever at their disposal, from the socially progressive web publication Rookie to the platforms for expression in social media such as Tumblr and Pinterest. Minnie didn't have the Internet, however, and thus her on-screen "diary" is a tape recorder, as opposed to the clacking confessions she writes on a typewriter in the book version. The intention was at once to dispel the visually unappealing convention of the mad writer genius slaving over a typewriter, cigarette dangling from her lip and to allow us to go through all of Minnie's milestones with her, as she reports the weird, wonderful things that comprise her young life.

"Getting to watch her process her life through her diary is so much more compelling than hearing a voice-over, hearing her tell the story, and how is she interpreting it," Heller says. "How did she see that incident, how did it happen and how did it affect her?" Hearing Minnie narrate the agony of crushes, the thrill of cutting class and the pain of clashing with friends in turn is not only compelling, it feels revolutionary.

And, sure, Minnie is technically a teenage girl living in a freewheeling world that's still stacked against her in every way. But the truth is, Minnie is a vehicle for all of our contemporary confusion. She is intended to be ageless, even genderless—because the issues she's grappling with are human, not limited to just the experience of teenage girls. "All those adjectives of [Minnie's] age, gender, things that can be added or analyzed with that experience, I'm after something that we all share. To compartmentalize things is a lie," Gloeckner says. So file The Diary of a Teenage Girl under the category of "life" first and "fiction" second—it's an enlightening ride, to say the least.