"I had sex today—holy shit!" Such is the stunned realization of Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley), the 15-year-old protagonist of The Diary of a Teenage Girl—and somehow, the admission might seem just as shocking to an audience. It's 2015, and it shouldn't be the case, yet here we are: A movie about an adolescent girl's sexual and emotional coming-of-age still feels borderline revolutionary.
There would be nothing particularly worthwhile about Marielle Heller's adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner's 2002 graphic novel if it were just out to be shocking or titillating about budding female sexuality; nobody has ever gone broke appealing to an audience looking to leer. But there's a welcome complexity to the way Diary explores how its heroine thinks about sex, love and physical intimacy, mixed with a vivid visual imagination to evoke the source material. It's not easy for a movie to be both playful and cautionary, but Heller pulls it off.
That opening proclamation of Minnie's lost virginity doesn't address the most complicated part of the encounter: the guy involved, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), is the 34-year-old boyfriend of her mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig). Nor does it end up being just a one-time event, as Minnie and Monroe continue their affair in secret. But as Minnie begins to record her thoughts about this strange new adult world—both in an audio diary, and in her own cartoon art creations—she begins experimenting with more partners and more relationships that aren't always easy to navigate.
Minnie's world is 1976 San Francisco, and it's not possible to overstate how much that period setting permeates her story. The daughter of a twice-married and twice-divorced free spirit, Minnie is surrounded by drugs and a liberal attitude toward sex; as she walks through Golden Gate Park, a casually topless woman is among those she sees hanging out on the grass. The underground-comix scene of folks like R. Crumb and Aline Kominsky inspires Minnie's own burgeoning interest in becoming an artist (with the illustrations turning into a vibrant, often animated part of the movie's storytelling), and a Rocky Horror Picture Show screening further expands her awareness of the spectrum of sexuality. Even news reports about the high-profile Patty Hearst case feed into Diary's look at the way emotional need can lead to relationships that aren't particularly healthy.
Because while there's a welcome sex-positivity to much of The Diary of a Teenage Girl—acknowledging Minnie's desires even as others around her can only process her behavior with words like "slut" and "nympho"—it's hardly a grand celebration of Minnie's post-Sexual Revolution exploits. Powley's performance is wonderfully layered—wide-eyed and watchful at times, while at other times capturing a still-girlish bouncy physicality—and adds to the humor of scenes like the one in which Minnie's high-school-age lover expresses his inability to deal with the fact that she pursues her own orgasms. Yet she also clearly gets in over her head, conflating sex with the love and connection she's missing from her absentee father and a mother who seems to talk to her only to address her physical appearance. Diary doesn't suggest Minnie is just a typical girl pursuing normal, healthy sexual behavior. It's a tour through the life of a girl who looks like—and is treated like—a woman, trying to find boundaries when there don't seem to be any.
That mix of giddiness and danger isn't easy to sustain over the course of an entire film, and there are moments when Diary veers toward the possibility that it could become the Trainspotting of adolescent female sexual experimentation. But Heller and her cast find too many piercingly honest moments—from Minnie marking Monroe with an "x" of virginal blood, to the cartoon figures that betray Minnie's self-image—for the movie ever to feel like a wallow in exploitation. And indeed, a mix of giddiness and danger practically defines the adolescent experience. The Diary of a Teenage Girl doesn't stand in judgment of Minnie, nor does it pretend that everything we see her do is perfectly fine. It merely understands the weird emotional place where the only reasonable response to "I had sex today" would be, "Holy shit!"