When I first heard about The Diary Of A Teenage Girl, it seemed to contain everything that a film needs to make me go a bit giddy at the knees. Set in San Francisco in the 1970s, it offers a teenage girl coming of age and discovering sex, as well as her own artistic talent as a cartoonist. Then there’s her little sister and her single mum who likes to party, as well as talk freely, in their bohemian sitting room. There’s shagging, drugs, loads of art coming right out of the screen, and Alexander Skarsgård and Kristen Wiig up against each other, alongside the incredible newcomer Bel Powley. It has won awards at the Sundance, Berlin, Edinburgh and Palm Springs film festivals. Lena Dunham just described it as a “beautiful, important funny movie – my favorite this year”. Boom. All my buttons pressed. And anyway, how often do we actually get films about a teenage girl finding her own way, sexually, without the film itself seeming to pass some judgment on her, or life punishing her afterwards?
Yet I watched it and found myself feeling some feelings. Some complicated feelings.
Because, let’s cut to the chase here, and it really isn’t a spoiler – this is a film about a schoolgirl fucking her mum’s boyfriend. “I had sex today,” begins the joyful voiceover, as the clouds part and said girl trips through the hazy sunshine of California’s most liberated city.
I sat back and I enjoyed myself a lot. The film turned me on more than I wanted it to
Everything is free, everything is lovely – because we do not realise, at this point, the wholly inappropriate person with whom she has had that sex. That virginity-losing sex. Yet, when we do find out – and their relationship develops – is he instantly the bad guy? Is she a victim? Is her mother suffering horribly? Has Hollywood left me so used to such formulaic signposts that I just don’t know what to do with myself when a movie doesn’t tell me who’s right and who’s wrong? Should I just sit back and enjoy myself?
The thing is, I did. I sat back and I enjoyed myself a lot. The film turned me on more than I wanted it to. The part of my brain that spends too long on Twitter, with all of its political self-righteousness, wanted to say, “Oh, how exploitative this terrible man is, how abusive.” What the bigger part of my brain, or perhaps my knickers, actually said was, “She’s into it and, mmm, that’s kind of hot.” It’s hard to chastise a character for his exploitative predatory ways, when the camera lets us linger on the girl’s pert young breasts just like he does. When the camera shows their sex to be so very… sexy. After a while, it’s like reading one of those Daily Mail articles that says something about how some terrible shameless hussy did some shameless thing that shouldn’t have been done “AND HERE ARE THE PICTURES”.
Are we ever actually told her age? 15, I think – but might she be 13? 17? There was a stepdad for a bit but… where is the dad? In The Diary Of A Teenage Girl, you are left to negotiate your own fuzzy spaces, without being giving the simple clarity of an age, or the simple fact of a divorce, to tell you what is good and what is bad. This is a family without clear boundaries, meaning we have to form our own – or maybe we don’t. Maybe we just have to sit back and let it happen on the big screen. And comfort ourselves in the knowledge that he’s an asshole and we could never approve of a situation like that.
The Diary Of A Teenage Girl is in cinemas from today