Diary of a Teenage Girl refuses to simplify female sexuality – no wonder it shocked the censors

The new film from director Marielle Heller revels in the messiness of teenage life and love. 

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The story begins, as stories so often do, with a crush. Well, that’s not quite right – it actually begins with a bum, filmed from below as it walks through a park in a pair of tight tan flares.

The bum belongs to Minnie (Bel Powley), a teenager growing up in Seventies San Francisco. Minnie wants to be an artist, and her gnarled cartoons bristling with flowers and feathers appear across the screen at regular intervals, leaving us in no doubt that we're seeing the world through her eyes. Minnie also really, really wants to have sex, and, at the beginning of the film, she gets her chance – and with her crush, no less, who climbs out of her wishful sketches and straight into bed with her. "F*ck me," she instructs him. And he does.

The only catch is that said crush, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) is much older, and is dating Minnie's mother (a carefree, coke-snorting Kirsten Wiig). “I had sex today. Holy Shit” is Minnie’s first line, and her excitement and happiness is palpable. Yet it’s also clear that the relationship which dominates the film has a disturbing power dynamic, and is based on a young woman’s worship of an almost-father figure.

The presence of this hideously inappropriate relationship within an empowering coming-of-age tale gives the film, directed by Marielle Heller, its depth: it’s a confusing mishmash of teenage longing and sexual discovery, alongside far darker themes that forever threaten to blow up in the characters' faces. We see everything through Minnie’s eyes, but at times, our status as observers is also confused: is it us, voyeuristically watching her bum in that first scene? Should we be rooting for her and her growing appetite for sex and drugs, or should we be willing her to slow down, while judging the much older man who repeatedly has sex with her? Should we just sit back, and trust her to navigate it all herself?

The film has already attracted its fair share of attention for its 18 classification from the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), which the film’s director and star, plus teens across the internet, have slammed. This is not least because Minnie, according to Phoebe Gloeckner's original graphic novel, is 15 years old (one review from the Sundance festival claims she is 17 in the film adaptation). As June Eric-Udorie wrote for The Independent:Diary of a Teenage Girl could have been a breath of fresh air for teens who desperately wanted their sexual autonomy reflected honestly in the cinema. Too bad they now won’t legally be able to see it.”

The all-male board's rationale for the high rating – “strong sex scenes including mechanical thrusting” – comes across as a little ridiculous, especially considering the fact that Fish Tank, with its similar themes (and thrusting), was given a 15 classification. In fact, while watching the film, you get the feeling the board were gesturing towards something else with that higher rating. Diary fits into a new wave of depictions of female sexuality which refuse to fall back on notions of black and white, bad or good, exploitative or resoundingly positive.

Women like alt-lit author Marie Calloway, or even Lena Dunham, are exploring ways in which sex, and the women engaging in it, can be in the grey area between “fine” and “not fine” (ironically, 50 Shades of Grey, in my opinion, does not). In her short stories, Calloway writes about a disturbing threesome and a submissive relationship with a famous author, while Dunham’s show, Girls, contains strange and emotionally brutal – yet entirely consensual sex scenes. In Diary, exploration is positive, not a source of terror. As Minnie tells a female lover later in the film, “I’m not scared of anything”. Minnie enjoys sex, whether it be a darker shade of grey or not; and that, not "mechanical thrusting", is the film's most challenging and important subject matter. 

Despite the illegal nature of Monroe and Minnie's relationship (even if she were 17, Californian state law dictates that under-18s cannot have sex with those more than three years older than them), the film doesn’t allow it to be bound by these terms alone. Tongue-in-cheek references to Patty Hearst – “what kind of person falls in love with their kidnappers?” Minnie says, aghast, in response to a news item – show that Heller, who also wrote the screenplay, is well aware of this interpretation of Minnie's situation. Her most radical act is to leave the audience, and Minnie herself, to make their own decisions about what the affair really signifies.

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.