The Diary of a Teenage Girl is essentially a pornographic Judy Blume tale. The film is exactly—and I mean exactly—the same premise as Andrea Arnold’s superior Fish Tank: a 15-year-old girl living with her drug-addled single mother and annoying little sister is willingly seduced by her mom’s charming-yet-creepy boyfriend. The primary difference between Diary and Fish Tank is in its tone and treatment of the sexual relationship between an adolescent girl and a 30-something year old man. Where Fish Tank overtly shows the painful and destructive consequences and makes the sexual relationship a part of the protagonist’s story, Diary seems to revel in the relationship as a sort of female rite of passage, underplaying any of the legitimate danger, illegality, and depravity of this type of sexual abuse. The sexual relationship is the story, and there’s little else developed or explored in this teenage girl’s life. This diary is a single sentence written over and over again with the obsessive fervor of The Shining’s Jack Torrance.
Set in 1970s San Francisco, The Diary of a Teenage Girl opens with 15-year-old Minnie (Bel Powley) reflecting on her first sexual relationship with the naïve honesty that comes with adolescence: “I had sex last night. Holy s**t!” Minnie’s diary is her tape recorder and her notepad, both of which she fills with lurid descriptions of her sexual imaginations and encounters with Monroe (Alexander Sarsgard), the dopey 34-year-old boyfriend of her cocaine-snorting mother (Kristin Wiig). Minnie has been sexually intrigued by Monroe from the start, and when she abruptly demands in a moment of drunkenness that he should f**k her, he willingly obliges without much of a second thought. The sexual relationship continues from there, with Minnie going on the adolescent roller-coaster of emotions that inevitably comes with being a 15-year-old in such an unhealthy relationship. She’s crassly open and honest about her feelings and experiences, and Powley’s performance is noteworthy for its earnestness.
The film’s repeated reference to the Patty Hearst story is the not-so-subtle allusion to Minnie’s manipulation and victimization by Monroe, but that’s about where the examination of any negative consequences ends. For the most part, The Diary of a Teenage Girl seems to delight in this coming-of-age experience for Minnie, her transition into adulthood by way of statutory rape. Real-life victims of sexual abuse and rape from older men would likely be horrified to see such a depiction, and while Diary is being lauded as “honest” and “authentic,” I found little to be true in its story-telling. There’s a difference between honest and explicit, and Diary strongly leans towards the latter. Bel Powley is frequently nude in this film, and while she’s a 23-year-old actress, it felt very awkward and exploitative to have such a strong emphasis on her teenage character’s nudity and obsession with sex. And she is obsessed. I know teens think about sex a lot—so do plenty of adults!—but in my experience as a pastor who has worked with hundreds of teens over the past decade, Minnie’s sexual fixation is an unhealthy anomaly, one that makes me wish she’d see a counselor, not revel in her “exploration.” This isn’t a judgment of the characters themselves who are living lifestyles of self-destruction. Plenty of great films and plays are masterpieces precisely because the characters spiral and falter and are transformed due to their own harmful choices. What makes Diary so false is that there are little-to-no consequences for Minnie, Monroe, or anyone else. They all just sort of get over it, and that’s that. The film is tiresome and repetitive, with scene after scene of sex, following by drugs, followed by more sex, more drugs, sprinkled with some animation of cartoon penises. If that sounds enticing, then Diary may be a film for you.
The thesis of The Diary of a Teenage Girl: Making terrible, life-shattering decisions as a teenager is perfectly fine—even fun!—as long as it leads to you loving yourself more. It’s an adolescent answer to adult realities.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3172532/