‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’ Is a Revolutionary Portrait of Adolescent Sexuality

“I like sex,” confesses Minnie (Bel Powley), in one of the many voiceovers that pepper Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl. “I really like getting fucked. Does everyone think about sex as much as I do?” If you watch movies about teenagers, you wouldn’t think so — or, more accurately, you wouldn’t think that young women do. Movies about teenage boys almost always (accurately) portray them as cripplingly obsessed with fornication, while the women they pursue are reluctant, prudish, finally acquiescing, it seems, purely out of obligation and/or as affirmation of “true love.” Of course, occasionally those stories also include a Damaged Bad Girl™, who will, in fact, go all the way. That character is at the center of Diary — but, for once, she’s not defined by her damage, nor her sexuality. That quality is what makes the picture revolutionary; the insight and wit of of the writing and direction and the bracing humanity of the playing are what make it great.

Adapted by director Heller from Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel, it begins with 15-year-old Minnie, circa 1976, announcing, “I had sex today. Holy shit.” From there, she backs up to describe how it came to pass — she lost her virginity to Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), 20 years her senior and boyfriend of her mother (Kristen Wiig). “Not that I love him or anything,” she insists. “I’m not stupid.” But her attraction to him has, obviously, a little-girl-crush quality, even when they’re doing unquestionably and inappropriately grown-up stuff.

Bel Powley in "Diary of a Teenage Girl"

The handling of that relationship is the trickiest element in play, and the skill with which Heller and Gloeckner balance it is some kind of miracle. The relationship is discomforting but matter-of-fact; not sensationalistic, but not softballing either. They don’t triple-underline a statement like, “He’s a good guy, and he knows how it goes, and I don’t,” the way some filmmakers would; they trust the audience to understand how he’s taking advantage of her (her mother’s fascination with Patty Hearst, who fell in love with her captor, is more than just a period detail), while simultaneously allowing that Minnie might get some satisfaction and affirmation out of what they do. At the moment when their byplay goes from playful horsing around to something else, and Monroe confesses, “You just gave me a hard-on,” Minnie responds not with eagerness or disgust, but with surprise: “I did?”

She didn’t realize she had that power; later, she repeats to herself, like a mantra, “Somebody wants me. Somebody wants to have sex with me,” and that feeling, that desperate need to be desired, isn’t something specific to any age or gender. It’s a need that courses throughout the picture, sometimes implicitly, sometimes in explicit proclamations like, “I want a body pressed up next to me, so I know I’m really here,” which capture the swirling intensity, the thunderbolt emotional chaos, of being that age and being in love, or lust, or some approximation of either.

Kristen Wiig and Bel Powley in "Diary of a Teenage Girl"

Much of that falls to Powley, a British actress who is staggeringly good; in a sideways glance, a loaded smile, a screwy line reading, she effortlessly captures the emotional hunger, self-loathing, and power (sometimes all at once) so tied up in adolescent sexuality. Skarsgård’s playing a bad guy who thinks he’s not so bad, and does it without the kind of sympathetic winks that can easily undermine such a role. Wiig likewise refuses to go soft on her character’s considerable flaws — particularly in the later scenes, where she achieves a delicate harmony between anger, hurt, and belligerence that accumulates into a wounded, complicated humanity. She’s no longer a comic actor taking a crack at the serious stuff; she’s an actor, without qualifiers, and one of our best.

Actor-turned-filmmaker Heller — making, astonishingly, her debut behind the camera — performs tiny feats of wonder throughout the picture. Her scenes move with crisp efficiency, her use of Minnie’s comic-book animations is effective but not overdone, her cuts are witty (she’s one of those writer/directors who knows the value of getting a laugh with a well-timed edit), and she uses the period setting and marginalia as a storytelling aid, but not a shortcut. She loses control of the narrative a bit when Minnie does, with a descent into San Francisco’s seedy underbelly that’s a touch too cautionary tale, but it’s a momentary and understandable fumble, and the only place where she loses the thread for even a moment.

What’s perhaps most invigorating about Diary is its dead-set refusal to judge its protagonist, or condemn her to a lifetime of regret. She may be in thrall to Monroe, and may be manipulated by him, but at a certain point she’s manipulating him right back (and is ultimately the one who can put the kibosh on the whole thing). Movies about being young and sexual — movies which, yes, are usually made by men — tend to view an experience like Minnie’s as a sob story, an ordeal from which she shall never recover (whereas a young man in her shoes would chalk up such a fling as a rite of passage, to be checked off and learned from). Minnie, however, won’t have it. “I refuse to be some sniveling crybaby,” she announces, in what begins as an confession but becomes her manifesto. “I’m a woman, and this is my life.”

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is out Friday.