1976, San Francisco: Minnie Goetze (Bel Powel) is 15 and she has just lost her virginity to the 34-year-old Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), her mother’s boyfriend. The two stare at the ceiling, aware of their combustible and fragile situation. Blood on her fingers, Minnie brands Monroe with an x and asks if he can take a photo of her. He obliges, picking up her Polaroid and takes a quick snap that captures Minnie at her most quiescent. “I can’t even see where I am” Minnie says, an innocent observation that translates to axiom. Marielle Heller’s debut film is a raw account of a young woman’s sexuality and the isolation that comes from adolescence.
The diary component to The Diary of a Teenage Girl comes from Minnie recording her day’s events onto a tape recorder. It’s the first we hear from the impressionable though clearly attuned teen, as she gleefully announces that she had sex today. She carefully recounts the moments – candid details on Monroe grazing her breast and the febrile state that it conjures – leading to their afternoon of sex. Heller’s use of Minnie’s voice-over narration is an effective tool in both underscoring a darkly comic tone, whereby Minnie’s naivety (“Does he love me?”) operates in conjunction with some startlingly blunt personal observations (Minnie’s persistent concerns over body image as it relates to her surprise that someone would have sex with her). A complementary exercise in image and sound, the film looks and reads like a diary, cutting to the bone in its experiential details while possessing a fluidity that feels like a stream of consciousness.
Heller is absolutely fearless, making no concessions toward comfort. A sequence early in the film involves a drunken Monroe ribbing with Minnie. Hued in warm shades of brown by cinematographer Brandon Trost, the sequence quickly escalates into something sexually charged and intensely erotic. Heller drowns out the bar noise of the sequence and opts for silence as she tightens the frame around the lascivious Bel Powel, in what’s a morally complicated and uncomfortable moment that rattles your core. The film is sewn with these spells of Nabokovian anxieties; the complications involved here are that there’s no conventional sense of someone playing the “victim” or “predator”. The film’s world is a gray zone that mirrors reality to an unnerving degree.
Adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel, Heller liberally populates the frame with animated imagery. Yet with its voice-over narration and stylistic asides, the film never becomes cacophonous or marred by embellishment. A great deal of credit goes to Heller for unpacking this dense and ambitious source material, one so contingent on finessing the finer details of its observational sui generis, and keeping it intact and most of all, honest.