The movie The Diary of a Teenage Girl reminds us just how much energy we put into constructing our identities. It’s true that any coming of age film has the capacity to remind us of that, but most don’t, falling back, instead, on clichés. The Diary of a Teenage Girl, however, is different from most coming of age stories. First, it tells the story of a girl becoming a young woman in a genre that is choked with stories about boys. And its sexual frankness is most unusual—not only because these types of films tend to treat sex coyly, but mainly because it centers on female desire without lapsing into moral judgment.
Finally, the film unflinchingly shows us how fraught with peril the search for our selves can be as Minnie, the film’s protagonist, played with discomforting verisimilitude by the moon-eyed Bel Powley, plays hard with sex and drugs as she experiments with who she is. Like Charlie Chaplin’s brief turn as a night watchman in Modern Times, when he roller skates around the fourth floor of a department store in a blindfold, blithely skating ever closer to the edge of the floor where the railing has been removed, unaware of his danger, so Minnie, to the audience’s dismay, repeatedly comes close to the brink without knowing it.
Adopted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s acclaimed, semi-autobiographical novel/graphic novel of the same name, The Diary of a Teenage Girl tells the story of the sexually precocious, fourteen-year-old Minnie who initiates an affair with her mom’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). As Minnie’s sexual explorations grow to include boys from her high school and strangers, her relationship with Monroe, much to Minnie’s anguish, lurches back and forth between on and off. Minnie may like to fuck, as she adamantly puts it at one point in the movie, but from desire, not out of compulsion or neurosis, so it is with some relief when, after some bad choices—as when she and a friend, taking on the role of prostitutes, actually turn a trick by charging a couple of young men in a bar money for sex—Minnie realizes she’d made a mistake and changes course.
In some ways, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is an excellent companion to Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, another movie based on a ground-breaking graphic novel that tells the story of a young woman searching for her identity, adopting various roles and doing stupid things in her quest. Both movies eschew sentimentality in favor of dark humor that occasionally dips into gleeful misanthropy, though Marielle Heller’s film is rawer and less ironic than Ghost World. But if Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel suggests more clearly than Zwigoff’s film that “identity” is an empty signifier that one will never “discover” if one keeps chasing after it, Heller’s adaptation of Gloeckner’s book shows the work that goes into that “search.” It can be harrowing regardless of whether one comes out the other side or not. If the movie suggests that by coming out the other side, Minnie has found herself, one also realizes, after witnessing Minnie’s journey, that there’s always tomorrow, and with it comes new circumstances that will require somebody entirely new again.