It seems to be the done thing to give any film dealing with sex an 18 rating these days, regardless of context. Unfortunately Marielle Heller’s debut film Diary of a Teenage Girl has fallen prey to this trend. Adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s semi-autobiographical, semi-graphic novel, Diary of a Teenage Girl follows Minnie, a 15-year-old discovering her sexuality. Yes, a film about a 15 year old girl coming to terms with life and sex is not accessible to any actual 15 year old girls. I don’t wish to linger too long on this subject but I think it’s worth comparing the BBFC’s description of Diary of a Teenage Girl to that of Submarine, Richard Ayoade’s painfully hip and indie 2011 story of a teenage boy discovering sexuality which got by with a 15 rating:
“Strong sex scenes include mechanical thrusting, breast and buttock nudity, and implied oral sex. One scene includes brief sight of a pencil drawing of a young woman with a penis in her mouth.
Other issues include several moments of drug use, including cocaine use, the taking of LSD, and the smoking of marijuana. The film also contains strong verbal sex references and over forty uses of strong language (‘f**k’). Some still pictures and short animated sequences include the sight of penises, both erect and flaccid.”
- Diary of a Teenage Girl
“The quantity of strong language in the film went beyond what is permitted by the BBFC’s Guidelines at ’12A’/’12’ which state that ‘The use of strong language (for example, ‘fuck’) must be infrequent, but ‘frequent use of strong language’ is allowed at ’15’.
Other issues in the film include moderate sex references which occur in the narrative context of teenagers finding out about sex and the central character’s concerns about his parents’ relationship and his mother’s infidelity. The film also portrays aspects of school life such as some relatively mild bullying and playing around with fireworks and matches, as well as teenagers smoking. The anti-social and dangerous activities are not endorsed by the film as a whole and the smoking is not overtly glamorised. There is also a scene in which an emotionally confused teenager swallows some pills, but this does not present as being a serious attempt at self-harm as the manner in which the scene plays out makes it clear that the character has no idea what he is doing, and although he does not come to serious harm his actions are not shown to be without adverse consequences.”
As far as I can tell, the main problems were the use of the word ‘f**k’ as the 2015 censors endearingly format it and the mere sight of penises (both erect and flaccid): implicitly stating that the mere sight of genitalia belonging to half the planet has more potential to harm the audience than ambiguous suicide attempts and playing with fire. The saddest part is that while the sex scenes are allowed to pass in Submarine since they are “occur in the narrative context of teenagers finding out about sex”, this same context and justification is blithely ignored for Diary of a Teenage Girl. Anyway, it’s a nonsense and a crying shame that this film won’t reach its intended audience that could probably really do with seeing it.
I say that becase Diary of a Teenage Girl isn’t moralising or a cautionary tale. Minnie’s introduction to the adult world involves an affair with a man twenty years her senior, her mother’s boyfriend – no less. She also takes an awful lot of drugs and almost ends up prostituting herself for more drugs thanks to a toxic relationship with a streetwise young lesbian. These aren’t all good ideas, but they happened and the film isn’t here to walk us through what is and isn’t what a young girl “should” be doing. We see Minnie sometimes go too far and find out where she’s comfortable but there’s no one dictating that the viewers’ limits should be different or the same as hers.
The adults in the film seem almost as immature as the teenagers, casually taking drugs for cleaning purposes and failing to really parent them on any level. It all seems like a group of people hanging on to the wild free love spirit of the seventies, but in a way that’s not so out of sync with current attitudes as to be alien. Yes, the décor is all in tasteless shades of orange and the waistbands are higher than one would nowadays consider reasonable but the emotions and events are universal enough for this not to feel like it’s an untouchable past world. Quite the contrary, thanks to Bel Powler’s delicate and consistent performance it’s sometimes hard to remember that you’re watching a film, not an overly-intimate fly on the wall documentary. The diary of the title is a series of candid tapes which form a voiceover for the film. Some of the things said in these tapes sound like extracts from everyone’s thoughts – others are the flights of fancy of Minnie’s own lens on life but it’s all very, very real and heartfelt. This however is balanced out by flourishes of artistic and cinematic creativity. Minnie, a budding cartoonist, interprets the world through pencil drawings that blossom into animated on screen elements at key moments. In this way the film see-saws between gritty realism and almost awkward over-romanticising, something very much akin to the teen experience as a whole.
Diary of a Teenage Girl has the rare quality of being a first film complete with a breakout performance. Nevertheless it still comes out as a delicate, meaningful and enjoyable piece of cinema without the precocity normally associated with a first foray onto the big screen. Sneak your younger sisters in.
- Entertainment: 4/5
- Artistic: 4/5
- Intellectual: 3/5