“I had sex today… Holy shit.” That’s the first sentence we hear from Minnie, our 15-year old protagonist, who is coming-of-age in a 1976 San Francisco. And just with that one simple sentence this film manages to completely shift the narrative we usually see in films about teenagers, placing girl’s sexual awakening, her thoughts and desires, at the centre of the story.
When we first see Minnie, she’s confidently walking through the park and she doesn’t have to say anything more than that one sentence. As the camera zooms close to her face, we know exactly what she’s thinking: “I became a woman today. I officially became an adult.” With a smile on her face and with her big, wandering eyes looking at the world as if she sees her surroundings for the very first time, we follow her home, into her room, where she sits down on her bed and starts recording her diary on a cassette player. It is she, and she alone, who is the narrator of this ground-breaking story about awakening sexuality of a teenage girl. Bel Powley, whose portrayal of Minnie is absolutely fantastic, carries the whole film with natural ease and confidence and ultimately gives one of the best (and certainly one of the most important) performances of this past year. It took us long enough, but the film that represents us as we really are, and not as we should or could be, is finally here. It probably goes without saying that it sparked its fair share of controversy – but considering it’s one of the first American films directed by a woman that unapologetically questions the carefully maintained status quo, this really isn’t all that surprising.
If we start to view women with agency – and with needs and desires that are as important as boys’ – it takes heterosexual men out of a position of power. Anytime we talk about women having agency or being the protagonist of a story, that’s threatening the status quo. (Marielle Heller, the director)
True, this film moves in a very greyish moral area, considering it’s about Minnie who starts an affair with her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård’s best role to date) who is 20 years her senior. But there’s a special kind of beauty in this (however problematic) story, because it’s unapologetically honest, real and not at all concerned with how uncomfortable it makes the viewer feel. The film is based on autobiographical novel by Phoebe Glockner and is told entirely from Minnie’s point of view. It therefore doesn’t judge, it doesn’t moralize and it also doesn’t make Monroe a predator or Minnie his under-age victim. The film is set in a groovy, anything-goes 1976 San Francisco, in a household full of smoke, booze and occasional use of cocaine, and considering this social-historical context, it actually makes perfect sense that Monroe is not portrayed as someone who committed statutory rape (even though this obviously was the case). It’s also important to understand that however problematic his character may be, we only see him through Minnie’s big, dreamy eyes, still full of childish wonder about the world surrounding her; the world of sex, lust and love that she is just slowly beginning to understand. She’s smart, funny, honest, vulnerable, curious and flawed; the most real, three-dimensional teenage-girl character that ever graced our movie screens. But she’s also only 15 years old, and this makes her a ticking hormonal bomb, full of typical adolescent insecurities and feelings she doesn’t yet quite understand.
Of course she doesn’t know what she’s getting into when she decides to seduce Monroe. Just as she doesn’t completely comprehend how wrong it is what they’re doing – he, on the other hand, knows they crossed a line and soon starts avoiding her. However, some people can’t seem to get over their problematic age-difference and tend to moralize about how Monroe should be persecuted for having sex with a minor (but then it wouldn’t be Minnie’s story anymore, would it?) – and because of that, they tend to overlook the most revolutionary part of this ground-breaking indie. Things are far from being black and white and not only is she far too smart and complex to be an innocent victim of a sexual predator, she also actually likes sex. She likes it so much that she manages to scare off the boy with whom she hooks up after Monroe starts to keep his distance. Her passion and intensity, her knowing exactly what she wants and how she wants it, turns out to be too much for a teenage boy who was probably raised in a belief that girls don’t even like sex, let alone like it to the same extend as boys.
The narrative I was given as a teenage girl was that boys are going to be the ones who think about sex. Boys are going to be the ones who want to have sex. I think it’s damaging to both sexes that we don’t talk about sexuality as something we are both experiencing equally. (Marielle Heller, the director)
Kristen Wiig does an outstanding job playing Minnie’s boozy and inattentive mother Charlotte, a librarian by day and a tireless party animal by night, who recently divorced Minnie’s conservative step-father (Christopher Meloni) and started living her life as a “liberated woman” of the 70’s. Her narcissistic and hedonistic behaviour seems to be something straight out of Christopher Lasch’s 1979 best-selling book The Culture of Narcissism and while her remarks sometimes seem to be inspired by the ideas of second wave feminism, she doesn’t actually seem able to function without a man in her life. She also can’t seem to break her pattern of dating inappropriate men who bring nothing but chaos into her family life. Even though she doesn’t get much screen time, she comes across as a real, complex and confused human being, full of her own insecurities and inner contradictions – as someone who refuses to be someone’s housewife, but who’s also failing in her role of a mother. As Minnie smartly describes her at the end of the movie: “I always thought I wanted to be exactly like my mom. But she thinks she needs a man to be happy. I don’t. So maybe nobody loves me, maybe nobody will ever love me. But maybe it’s not about being loved by somebody else.” And it’s at that moment that we realize she’s all grown up. She has become a wise, mature and emotionally (although not yet economically) independent woman and a proud feminist who won’t ever allow herself of being defined by men in her life and who will always know that what matters most in life is loving yourself.
Another thing that deserves to be brought up is how smartly the writer/director Marielle Heller avoids portraying Minnie as a sexual object. Even though there is a fair share of nudity in this film, she is never a subject of a (male) gaze – not when it comes to Monroe, and not when it comes to the audience. The only time we see her fully nude is when she stands in front of a mirror, watching and judging herself, trying to figure out if she likes what she sees – she is thus a subject of her own gaze, and all the judging about her being pretty and/or fat is left entirely to her. She is owning every scene that she finds herself in, whether it’s about her lovable, but flawed personality, her hormonal outbursts, her body image or about her sexual experimentation, and she leaves us absolutely no choice but to join her on a crazy ride of adolescent troubles and confusion.
Directed by: Marielle Heller
Written by: Marielle Heller (based on a novel by Phoebe Gloeckner)
Starring: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Meloni
Running Time: 102 minutes