The media was having a field day trying to figure out why Alexander Skarsgard showed up in drag at the San Francisco premiere of The Diary of a Teenage Girl at the Castro Theatre last Monday. Some wondered if it was because he plays a gay or drag character in the movie (he doesn't). Others thought it was a tribute to "costar" Josh Grannell, AKA Peaches Christ, (yeah Grannell is in the movie, but blink and you'll miss him). But the truth is closer to what I figured all along: half the audience was in drag, and when in Rome — or the Castro — well, why not wear a dress? So, sure it was part tribute, but it was also just solidarity.
Director Marielle Heller took to the stage at the same premiere and introduced Skarsgard and costar Bel Powley; all three looked fabulous in their 1970's dresses. But before anyone could really say anything, Cousin Wonderlette — acting as MC — ushered them all off stage to make way for a bunch of Rocky Horror Picture Show performers to lead the audience in a round of the Time Warp. It was pretty obvious the majority of the audience was not ready to do the Time Warp again; they wanted to see the movie...
..which opens exuberantly, with young Minnie (Bel Powley) walking through Golden Gate Park, a smile on her face, "Looking for the Magic" playing on the soundtrack. "I had sex today," we hear Minnie say. "Holy shit!" It's a perfect, frank opening for what lies ahead: a movie that recognizes that teenage girls can be just as sex-obsessed and horny as teenage boys.
Minnie is fifteen and lives in San Francisco with her divorced mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) and her younger sister Gretel (Abigal Wait). It's 1976. They all live in flat in Laurel Heights, (actually filmed at a house on Haight Street), and Minnie goes to a private school in the neighborhood (the Presidio Library poses as the high school). She doesn't think herself very beautiful, even using the word ugly to describe herself, so having someone actually desire her feels momentous. She starts to document this pivotal change in her life via an audio diary, recorded on a cassette recorder she hides under her bed. These recordings serve as the film's narration.
As she tells her diary, having sex for the first time officially makes her an adult, although she can't talk about this sexual encounter with anyone aside from her blue-eyed, blonde feathered-haired best friend Kimmie (Madeline Waters). (Minnie's mother deems Kimmie kind of white trash, "but in a good way.")
Minnie's losing her virginity is a bit....complicated, because the man she's sleeping with is her mother's 35-year-old boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), "the most handsome man in the world." Most of the film's summaries describe this relationship as "an affair," glossing over the whole pesky statutory rape angle. It's certainly an easier way to describe the situation, and in many ways, the two of them are more equal than any two people with that age difference should be. And it also makes sense within the context of the film's setting. Of course, a 35-year-old man having sex with a fifteen-year-old can't be excused with "It was the 1970s; things were different then!" But it can be explained with that.
Minnie is not a victim. She's not a victim of Monroe, or of her own sexuality. If she's a victim of anything, it's the era. The 70's were tough — perhaps even tougher for San Franciscans. Many parents were barely out of their teenage hippie phase before they were faced with the daunting task of raising the next generation. And a lot of time, they didn't do much raising. Sure, many kids had a lot more freedom than they do now, which can be a good thing, but it also meant a lot of learning had to come from painful experience, and not from parental guidance. All of this is illustrated in Diary to tremendous effect, from Minnie's sexual experience, to having a mother who is more of a buddy who shares her drugs than a parent who pays much attention to her kids' welfare.
And yet, Minnie's mother isn't a villain, and neither is Monroe. Skarsgard portrays him perfectly: he's a tad pathetic, basically weak, and is playing at being an adult as much as Minnie is. Wiig is also great as Minnie's mom. She's never a caricature. Moments where she's being a, frankly, terrible parent, feel very real. You don't hate her, but you do wish she'd just get her shit together already.
Minnie's and Monroe's relationship is fun for a while, but then it isn't, and the main reasons it isn't is because it's not right. Which isn't to say it's only wrong, and isn't to say Minnie can't learn from it. Minnie is able to embrace her own sexual needs, accept that wanting to feel another person's body against hers is natural, and go out and get what she wants, and needs.
I'm reluctant to call this presentation of female sexuality "brave," because I don't think it's brave so much as just plain true. Yes, it's rare for a movie to explore it, though it's not unheard of. Some comparisons have been made to 1980's Little Darlings, (a personal fave), but I was also reminded of the 1987 British film Wish You Were Here, which also focused on a teenage girl with a sexual appetite, and little to no shame about it.
And while sex does take up much of Minnie's thoughts, she has other passions that blossom at the same time. It being 1970's San Francisco, Minnie is familiar with the local underground comics scene, and styles her own drawings after them, and her personal hero Aline Kominsky. Minnie's drawings show up as occasional animations in the movie, illustrating her inner thoughts, and giving the movie an extra kick of 1970's nostalgia.
Minnie's fondness for drawing is more than just a passing hobby. Towards the film's end, as Minnie's choices turn a little dark, we know she's going to be OK, because she has an artistic talent and a passion for it that will be able to pull her out life's darkest moments.
Let me end with praise for Bel Powley's performance. She's British, and in her early 20's, but she pulls off playing an American teen perfectly. (It also helps that she's tiny and Alexander Skarsgard is like 7 feet tall.) She's able to appear naive and innocent in one moment, and sexual and eager in the next; not just scene to scene, but sentence to sentence. It's quite remarkable.
Her performance and the film's message were summed up perfectly for me in one brief moment. As Minnie is leaving school one day, a fellow student walks by her and mutters "slut," under her breath. Minnie hears this, and her reaction is: a brief look of puzzlement, followed by a laugh, and a slight shrug of her shoulders.
And she keeps on walking.