Yesterday, I watched Marielle Heller’s Diary of a Teenage Girl, which tells the story of 15-year-old Minnie Goetz’s sexual awakening after she loses her virginity to her mother’s boyfriend. It was a good film, sadly not quite as funny as I’d hyped it up to be in my mind, and there were tonal issues with it that didn’t quite sit right with me. Thankfully, it was elevated by a transcendent performance by British actress Bel Powley as the protagonist, without whom, the film would have completely sunk. Her fearless, honest performance truly captured what it’s like to be a teenage girl, even when parts of the screenplay didn’t quite ring true. Minnie makes poor decision upon poor decision and you find it increasingly difficult to get behind her, but Powley’s large grey-green eyes and childlike visage reinforce that at the end of the day, she is just a misguided kid trying to find her place in the world, and it is our mistakes which form us. I can’t think of another young actress who could have imbued Minnie with the realism that she did – Jennifer Lawrence would have overplayed it, Kristen Stewart would have underplayed it – and it’s for Powley’s acting that the movie is worth a watch.
In the build-up to the UK release of Diary of a Teenage Girl, director Heller, actress Powley and Twitter feminists across internet have been voicing their displeasure with the British Board of Film Classification’s decision to award the movie an 18. The director argues that by doing so, the all-male certification board are putting black box around female sexuality, in a way that male sexuality is never questioned. Naturally, feminists have jumped on this bandwagon, lambasting the BBFC as being backward and threatened by women who embrace sex. I can't help feeling their arguments would have more clout had they actually watched the film first before crying sexism.
Watching the film, I thought the 18 certificate was wholly merited. The sex scenes in it aren’t anywhere as lengthy as those in, say, Blue is the Warmest Colour, but there are a lot of them, in range of positions, featuring, in want of a better phrase, what the BBFC describe as ‘mechanical thrusting’, as well as Minnie’s ill-fated adventures, of which include her and her friend blowing two random guys in a bar toilet for some money. Minnie is an aspiring artist so there are also sketches of various parts of the male and female anatomy littered throughout the narrative, as well as strong verbal sex references in which Minnie and her promiscuous best friend casually discuss the next guy they’re gonna fuck. Film critics have remarked on the irony that teenagers (between 15-17) won’t get to watch a film titled ‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’, but if this is the life of a teenager being presented, I’d argue that that isn’t the worst thing.
In terms of precedent, the filmmakers of Diary of a Teenage Girl have pointed to Fish Tank, a similarly-themed movie about an Essex girl who sleeps with her mother’s boyfriend (played by the dishy Michael Fassbender), which got a 15. However, in that movie, there were only two sex scenes (one between the girl and Fassy, and another between her mum and Fassy), both of which, whilst featuring thrusting, are brief and do not match any of Diary of a Teenage Girl’s impact. Secondly, Fassbender’s characters actions are condemned pretty strongly and he is painted to be a sleazy shit. Minnie’s love interest, on the other hand, played by Alexander Skarsgård, is portrayed with more easygoing affability, even though his actions illustrate him to be quite the douche. I don’t think you can make a direct comparison between these two films at all, and if we’re going to be banding about bargain-basement arguments like ‘oh it’s about teenagers so teenagers should see it’, why not make Battle Royale and Kids a 15 as well then?
I wrote this blog in defence of the BBFC, because I feel they get a lot of misplaced slack these days. Last year, there was a media frenzy over Paddington getting classified a PG, because people couldn’t believe that a film about the friendly bear they grew up watching could be anything other than Universal. But, watching it, I thought PG was the correct decision – there were the odd curse words, and more pertinently, Nicole Kidman threatening to stuff a bear with a variety of threatening looking knives. It’s hardly Saw, but it was mildly unsettling, and it’s good that the BBFC acknowledged that, rather than pandering to public nostalgia. Similarly, when Gone Girl got an 18, lots of under-18s complained, with some poor sap with too much time on his hands even launching an online petition to try and get the rating changed (lol, because the rating of the film is the biggest problem in our lives). Cinemagoers need to understand that just because you’ve read the book and like David Fincher, doesn’t mean the BBFC have to dish out a 15 rating when the strength of the scenes in the film command something higher. The BBFC do not exist to make decisions just to appease you.
Part of my affection for the BBFC is that I don’t think British filmgoers realise how good they have it compared to the MPAA. The BBFC treat heterosexual and homosexual sex scenes the same, which the MPAA do not. Furthermore, despite what the crew of Diary of a Teenage Girl would have you believe, getting an 18 here is not that big a deal. It doesn’t kill off a film’s chances of succeeding at the box office. In the case of 50 Shades of Grey, I think we would have been surprised if it had gotten anything other than an 18. The MPAA’s ‘NC-17’, however, is extremely restrictive, and essentially kills of a film’s chance of getting advertised. And the way the NC-17 is dished out is, spurious, to say the least. (but that’s another essay for another day).
That’s not to say I agree unequivocally with every decision the BBFC make. I will never get over how the hyper-stylised violence of the two Kick-Ass movies didn’t earn them 18s, comedy as a mitigating factor or not. 2 Days 1 Night getting a 15 for a failed Xanax overdose also seemed a touch draconian (I maintain that if a 12 year old can take Heath Ledger’s shoving someone’s head into a pencil or, more disturbingly, Kate Winslet’s hand sliding down a sweat-steamed window then they’ll definitely be able to handle that, especially as the overdose wasn’t successful). Generally, some of the more adult 15s I watch I think could be 18s, so I would encourage the BBFC to err on the side of caution more. But that probably says more about my prudishness when it comes to cinema than anything.
In summary, I am delighted that the BBFC stuck to their guns about Diary of a Teenage Girl. To accuse the board of sexism and stifling female sexuality is a cheap, lazy tactic. In Diary of a Teenage Girl, Minnie goes on a destructive road of self-discovery before she truly understands into who she is, and what makes her. Perhaps the filmmakers could do something similar with their underage sex-riddled film before pointing fingers at the BBFC.