How Diary of a Teenage Girl Refuses Easy Answers

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Photo: Sony Pictures Classic

Diary of a Teenage Girl, opening this week, tells the story of a 15-year-old would-be cartoonist named Minnie Goetze (played exquisitely by Bel Powley). Minnie spends 1976 waiting for her life to get interesting and, once it does, recording the sordid details on a tape recorder in her bedroom. What could be a straightforward coming-of-age story is complicated by her partner in sexual discovery: Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), her mother’s 35-year-old boyfriend.

While it would be easy to write off Monroe as a predator and their relationship as abuse, Diary creates something much more nuanced, giving Minnie an impressive degree of agency even when she’s making bad decisions. Earlier this week, during a screening hosted by Cinema Society at Sunshine Cinemas, we spoke to the cast and filmmakers about consent, complex characters, and female sexual power onscreen.

“The highest praise we’ve been getting when we’ve been doing press and junkets and screenings is when people say they’re conflicted,” Skarsgard said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, I wanted to hate him but I didn’t, and for a brief moment I wanted them to be together, and then I felt really badly.’ That’s the best. It’s always more interesting when you can make audiences lean in and engage rather than just label the characters.”

Photo: Sony Pictures Classic

Powley said that the film’s commitment to Minnie’s perspective creates that unsettling experience. “If Minnie is enjoying herself, then the audience is enjoying themselves,” she said. “If Minnie finds it sexy, then we’ve got to find it sexy. We never wanted to enter into it with, ‘This is a predator and this is a victim.’ Also, she starts it. You know, she’s the one who puts his finger in her mouth and says, I want you to fuck me.”

Marielle Heller, who adapted Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel for the screen, agreed. “I do think it’s a situation of abuse, and a man taking advantage of a younger woman, but it’s also a lot more than that,” she told the Cut. “And at times they’re almost in love with one another, and at times it feels very consensual, and at times it doesn’t. I think most situations that are abuse or someone being taken advantage of actually feel much more complicated than just a victim and a predator.”

In Diary, the result is something unusual. “In all literature and in most films, women and girls are objectified,” said Gloeckner. “Their virginity is a precious thing that has to be guarded, or given away, or taken forcibly. But there’s so much more than that.”