The Diary of a Teenage Girl is not an easy movie to love. I knew going in that it would deal frankly with youthful sexuality and the violation of common social taboos. Since my focus lately has been on Mike Nichols’ bold but often hilarious cinematic explorations of sex, I figured I was prepared for anything. But, make no mistake, Diary of a Teenage Girl is no sexy romp. This despite the fact that the film, based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s ground-breaking graphic novel, finds very funny excuses to integrate animation into its cinematography, as a way of entering both its heroine’s head and her highly charged libido.
Mike Nichols, of course, tickled Baby Boomers by laying bare the bedroom adventures of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. He delved far deeper in Carnal Knowledge, which begins with two young collegians (Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel) lamenting their virginity, then follows them from innocence to impotence, with many sordid stops along the way. Carnal Knowledge is hardly a comfortable film, but I suspect it’s one with which some male viewers will not be able to help identifying. It’s quickly clear that all the women who float in and out of Jonathan and Sandy’s lives are just vessels for their unrequited longings for – what exactly? Unconditional love? Total erotic pleasure? Novelty? In any case, in its point of view this is a guy movie, from start to finish.
A much different perspective can be seen in An Education, the 2009 British film based on Lynn Barber’s autobiographical magazine piece. This film, which introduced me to the charms of Carey Mulligan, concentrates on a smart but restless high school girl, circa 1961, who is lured into an affair with an attractive older man (Peter Sarsgaard). Though sex (on a romantic weekend in Paris) is part of Jenny’s bargain with the devil, the film’s concerns are less with her budding sexuality than with her reckless determination to escape from the middle-class values of her good-hearted but dull parents. Writer Nick Hornby, who adapted Barber’s story for the screen, said as much when he explained what appealed to him about this assignment: “She's a suburban girl who's frightened that she's going to get cut out of everything good that happens in the city. That, to me, is a big story in popular culture. It's the story of pretty much every rock 'n' roll band."
Which brings me back to The Diary of a Teenage Girl. We’re in San Francisco, in the year 1976. Fifteen-year old Minnie Goetz (bravely played by Bel Powley) has just discovered that her mother’s attractive yet feckless boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Sarsgård) is checking out her breasts. This gives her the courage to make her own interest in a physical relationship crystal-clear. And so they do. The film’s opening line is voiceover narration: Minnie’s awestruck “I had sex today! Holy shit!” But we don’t simply overhear Minnie singing the body electric. In the course of this movie we see a great deal. Soon Minnie is busily experimenting, both with Monroe and with the teenage boys who suddenly seem quite interested in her maturing self. Eventually there is very public fellatio, a threesome, and psychedelics. It all seems related to a grim San Francisco social scene I’m glad wasn’t part of my upbringing. But at least some of the reason for Minnie’s sexual urgency can be laid at the door of her mother (Kristin Wiig), who’s too busy looking for her own satisfaction to see -- until late in the game -- what her daughter has become. Then, thankfully, there’s a glimmer of hope.