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When it comes to sex at the movies, the guys usually have all the fun. There could be an entire Netflix subgenre of movies devoted to male pleasure. In fact, the MPAA has shown a disturbing double standard in this area; the 2006 documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated demonstrated how even the slightest implication of a female orgasm typically relegates a film to an NC-17 rating and, as a result, a dramatically smaller audience. We know this, but changing it is a more complicated task.
In that context, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a revolutionary act. Based on a graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, the film is a pure work of entertainment that depicts female pleasure without judgment, shame, or objectification. It even opens in post-coital bliss. Fifteen-year-old Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) has just lost her virginity and is walking slow-motion through a park, looking at the sunny, beautiful world through new eyes. It’s an effective start, capturing with perfect clarity that universal teenage moment when sex is the easiest way to feel free.
It turns out Minnie lost her virginity not to an awkward teenage boy (although she finds one of those later) but to Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), the mustachioed, beer-slurping boyfriend of her divorced mother with substance abuse issues (Kristen Wiig). Minnie may be acting out some resentment towards her mother, an armchair feminist who stopped maturing after the birth of her daughter. Plus, it’s San Francisco in the 1970s, when sexual exploration was encouraged, if not required.
But the film isn’t interested in your analysis. Writer/director Marielle Heller smartly refrains from placing the affair—which would qualify as statutory rape anywhere in the U.S.—in any sort of political or psychological context. In fact, Minnie is depicted as the instigator, and the script takes her affinity for sex at face value. “Are you a nympho?” a friend asks her, after Minnie recounts the story of her affair with Monroe. Minnie doesn’t answer, and neither does the film; it’s a question for another day.
Today is about celebrating Minnie and one of the most emotionally authentic depictions of teen life in recent memory. Consider the casting: It would have been easy for the producers to insist on hiring some hot, young thing to play Minnie. Surely model-turned-actress Cara DeLevingne (now starring in Paper Towns) would have put more butts in the seats, especially with the film’s liberal use of nudity. But instead Heller chose Powley, a British actress who looks and acts, well, like a normal teenager. Minnie is a complex character struggling with physical and psychological transitions—her eyes are too big for her head, and her sexual appetite too advanced for her maturity level—but instead of burying those contradictions under eye candy, Powley bravely bares her humanity and captures all the jubilation, sadness, and terror of teenage life.
Still, there are cracks in the film’s bold, trope-busting aesthetic. A scene that reveals a character’s true colors during an acid trip feels like it’s been done before, and even the film’s central narrative device, implicit in its title, is a cliché. But these displays of genre convention serve a noble purpose: creating a soft, comfortable space for its more ground-breaking, provocative ideas. It’s a bitter pill of medicine in candy coating, and it makes the hard-earned but laughably obvious lesson—female characters can be sexual without being sexualized—go down smooth.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl opens Aug. 14 at E Street Cinema, Arclight Bethesda, Angelika Film Center at Mosaic, and AMC Loews Shirlington.