“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” explores bisexuality

*Caution: Minor spoilers*

Marielle Heller‘s The Diary of a Teenage Girl is one of the best depictions of teenage girl sexuality that’s ever been on screen. Based on Phoebe Gloeckner‘s graphic novel of the same name, Bel Powley stars as Minnie, a 15-year-old aspiring comic book artist who lives with her mom, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), and younger half-sister in 1970s San Francisco. A hit at Sundance this year that just opened in select theaters on August 7, most discussions on the film focus on Minnie’s sexual relationship with her mother’s 35-year-old boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). However, Minnie’s sexual fluidity is also a part of the film and an oft-ignored part of the conversation.

In a city and a decade exuding sex and sexuality, Minnie is fascinated by bodies, sensations and love. She’s not exactly sure how they all relate to one another, but she’s certain that once she is wanted, she’ll feel loved. And once Monroe begins to pay attention to her, it’s not long before the line is crossed and their physical relationship begins.

Being kept a secret weighs on Minnie, who gets increasingly frustrated when Monroe spends time with her mother instead of her, and is at one point convinced it’s because she’s “fat.” We hear all of her thoughts and the details of her sexual happenings as Minnie records them on a tape recorder in her bedroom, saving them all for the day she hopes to listen to them again, maybe sharing them with her husband (“but he might get jealous”).

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Eventually, Monroe isn’t giving Minnie enough of what she craves, as she is so fascinated by sex that she entertains a popular male classmate (who puts her off by telling she’s intense) and starts partying with an older crowd, accompanied by her best friend Kimmie (Madeleine Waters). One night at a Rocky Horror Picture Show screening, Minnie meets Tabatha (Margarita Levieva), an uber-cool 20-something oozing swagger. While alone in the bathroom together, Tabatha tells Minnie she looks tough, “like a truck driver,” and moves close to her lips, blowing smoke inside of her mouth. Later, Minnie tells Kimmie about the incident, and it’s clear she has an interest in the slightly older woman. 

Margarita Levieva as Tabatha

 

Don’t ask…. #awkwardmoment#diaryofateenagegirl#peaches#nightshoots..

A photo posted by Margarita Levieva (@margosha777) on

 

Minnie takes cues from her mother on how to titilate, and she puts on a show for Monroe by dancing suggestively with her best friend, and Kimmie ends up the first girl that Minnie experiments with as part of a drug-induced threesome that includes Monroe. The whole thing leaves Minnie feeling jealous and worried Kimmie will develop feelings for Monroe, but she doesn’t.

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More confused than ever, Minnie thinks she’s in love with Monroe, and despite his attempts to have ended things, she goes to see him and demands an adult conversation about their relationship. But when she arrives, he asks if they can make love “without her getting attached,” and she promises she won’t. The night ends with them taking LSD and tripping out, and while Minnie sees herself colorfully with wings that have her flying above the bed in euphoria, Monroe brings her back down to reality, crying and begging her to come down on the floor so she can cradle him in her lap. Then he says he loves her, and when she says it in return, it doesn’t feel right.

Minnie heads to a party of drugs, drag queens and queer couples making out. She finds Tabatha and they dance together before heading to the roof.

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“Are you scared to try it?” Tabatha asks when she notices Minnie surveying the track marks on her arm. “I’m not scared of anything,” Minnie replies. “Are you scared of me?” Tabatha asks, and they begin kissing, fireworks exploding inside of Minnie as animated above her in the sky.

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Their relationship is one of frivolity, as they spend their on-screen time together getting high in various ways and having sex in a scene that was both necessary and well-done. It wasn’t at all gratuitous and the absence of it would have been strange in the story of her obsession with the act itself. Although the relationship does not end up being what Minnie wants, it’s not because Tabatha is a woman. In fact, Minnie has no qualms about dating a woman at all. It was as natural for her to go after a girl at a party as it is for her to tell two young men at a bar she and Kimmie would go down on them for five dollars. And the difference is that she deeply regretted the later the next day, pinkie swearing her best friend they’d never do that again. (In the original graphic novel, Tabatha is deeper explored, but is still bad news.)

We don’t hear much reflection on Minnie’s relationship with Tabatha, however, because it’s after the point in the film where her tape recorder has been found by her mom, and the audio diaries are no longer a private pursuit. Without spoiling too much, this the turning point for Minnie, and the relationship she decides to focus on is the one with herself.

There’s another interesting moment in the film where Minnie notes the lack of physical affection her mom gives her. Minnie’s former step-father, a PhD named Pascal, once remarked that Minnie’s need for so much affection from her mother is “bordering on sexual” and is inappropriate. Charlotte is so wrapped up in what men like Pascal think that she forever after treated Minnie differently; seeing her as a sexual being before Minnie ever discovered she was one.

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The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a gorgeous film filled with mixed media of animation (and the awesome plot point that Minnie is an eccentric artist who becomes a pen pal with a famous female illustrator) and spot-on performances from everyone involved. Bel Powley is like a young Maggie Gyllenhaal, her every expression telling a story before she begins to put it into words. Kristen Wiig is spectacular as a half-involved mother whose love for her daughters is constantly battling her interest in losing herself to a feeling in the moment. And Alexander Skarsgård manages to straddle the line of enticing and creepy in a story that has created controversy surrounding the film’s central relationship.

There have been countless on-screen depictions of young men losing their virginity and their obsessions with lust and female bodies; The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a refreshing look at a teen girl’s all-consuming daydreams of desire. And that desire including both men and women is just as worthy of praise as is any other facet of the film.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is available in theaters now.