Why ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’ remains one of the year’s most important movies

Think about losing your virginity. No. Really think about it. Think about the anxiety that existed around when it would happen, with whom, what it would feel like, would it hurt? Would you be in love? Did it matter? Was it OK if you didn’t want to do it? Was it OK if you did?

If you haven’t yet lost your virginity those questions probably seem familiar. If you have, then think back on a younger version of you. Chances are, she felt those feelings and had those questions. Chances are it’s that last question that somehow felt the most troubling: What if you wanted to have sex?

As normal as sex is, there is still a pervasive understanding — especially when speaking, to or about young women — that wanting sex is a man’s desire. Boys will be boys; meaning they will get aroused, they will want to lose their virginity. But girls must be girls; meaning that chastity remains key, and that virginity loss isn’t about want, it’s about when’s the right time to, “give it up.”

It’s that outdated and rather sexist understanding of young sexuality that makes Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl so very important, even months after the film originally came out.

“I think teenage girls think about sex as much as teenage boys think about sex but as a society we don’t want to believe that to be true,” Heller told HelloGiggles in an interview. “We have some weird thing where we want to keep our teenage girls totally sheltered and as a result you feel like something’s wrong with you if you’re a teenage girl who thinks about sex.” Her film sets out to undo that damage, and in essence to make girls who think about sex, who even desire sex (gasp), feel more normal.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is based on a graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, which is in turn based loosely yet largely on Gloeckner’s own life. The film focuses on 15-year-old named Minnie (Bel Powley), an artist who opens the film with the words, “I had sex today. Holy sh-t.”

Minnie loses her virginity to her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) who is more than twice her age. While their relationship comes with a whole slew of innate moral (and legal) complexities, this is not a story of a girl as victim or a story of female sexual awakening explored through a male gaze or masculine understating. It’s literally a diary — Minnie’s thoughts told through voiceover, and illustration, and perspective — of what it feels like to become a sexual being.

“I read the graphic novel and it was like a lightening bolt. It shook me,” Heller told HelloGiggles. “It was such an honest portrayal of how I had felt when I was teenage girl, even though this wasn’t my story exactly it was exactly how I felt . . . I realized I had never seen anything that came close to those feelings portrayed in books or movies or anything.” Seeing the film I felt the same way, I imagine many, many others did too.

Aside from the physical aspect of sexual discovery — in addition to sleeping with Monroe, Minnie also has sex with a boy from school, hooks up with a girl she knows, and even tries prostitution (though she vows to never do that again) — The Diary of a Teenage Girl is also a stirringly honest depiction of what the brain-scramble that accompanies burgeoning sexuality feels like.

Just as you, moments ago, thought back on losing your virginity, now think back on what it felt like to be 15. Really think about it. Think about the extremity of every emotion, the life-or-death weight of every fight, every crush. The random cry-fits that hit like waves, and disappeared just as quickly. It’s safe to say that as teenagers very few of us have the polished veneers of the teen characters we are used to seeing in films and on television. Understanding this emotional complexity and internal messiness is another of The Diary of a Teenage Girl’s most important qualities. Not only does it honestly portray the external sexual experience, but the internal, and the fluctuating understanding of the self. In one particularly relatable scene, Minnie examines her body in the mirror saying in voiceover, “Sometimes I look in the mirror and I can’t believe what I see.” In many ways, that’s what being a teenager feels like. It’s an experience that we women far-too-rarely see on film.

“I think part of why teenagehood is so painful for so many of us is you don’t yet have the life perspective that you will survive and you will be alright,” Heller says. “There’s this extremity where it’s like, you find out that the boy you like likes you and it feels like everything in the world is fantastic and suddenly you’re seeing in color. And if he doesn’t, you feel like you might actually die.” Again, in many ways, that’s what being a teenager feels like and Heller’s film gets it.

It’s this level of internal and external understanding that gives the film its power. In giving Minnie honesty, vulnerability, truth, this movie will likely give many girls and many women comfort. You can likely look at this character, her frays and her foibles, and find something you’ve experienced, something you know. Her story may not be your story, but her process and growth and emotional confusion are likely close to something we’ve all felt, and even further something we (as women) are often told not to feel.

We see so many films about the teen male sexual experience that it can be easy to think that is the one that matters, the one that counts. The reality is teenage girls are faced with a cacophony of feelings and complex wants that are not being openly discussed. What this film does is give those discussions an outlet, and in doing so it makes the feelings we feel — the one’s that make us feel weird, or dirty, or like we’re doing something bad — seem a little more normal.

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[Images via Sony Pictures Classics]