Being called a good girl is a universal experience to women—most of the time it's a compliment, at times in jest, other times an insult. There doesn't appear to be a male equivalent.
It's echoed in song lyrics (Drake, we need to talk), dating tips, advice from well-meaning mothers. It's a seemingly innocuous term that polices women into the suffocating boxes we're stuck in. More often than not, it's usually referring to sex.
That's why Marielle Heller's directorial debut, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, feels so necessary and so punk, because it strips that nagging sentiment completely away from a story that could have been ruined by it. Much of that is due to the source material. Diary is based off Phoebe Gloeckner's graphic novel of the same name—following the life of 15-year-old Minnie Goetz (Bel Powley) in late '70s San Francisco. She's a pretty typical teen—lazy about school, a budding artist, goes to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show with her best friend, Kimmie. And she's completely, utterly consumed by thoughts of sex, much of that caused by (besides hormones) sleeping with Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), her mother's (Kristen Wiig) 35-year-old boyfriend.
It's not a comfortable relationship and the discrepancy between their ages isn't gilded over into May-December romance territory in neither the film nor the graphic novel. It's problematic. It's fucked up. And that's shown through how unhealthy it is for both Minnie and Monroe, but at the same time, it always underlines her consent and aggression in the relationship.
Minnie takes charge of Monroe and her sexuality in ways that are rarely, if ever, depicted of teen girls, let alone grown women onscreen. She experiments and figures out what makes her feel good and bad. She never limits her experiences. Her sexual relationship with Monroe is similarly depicted as such—what could be unsettling, queasy sex—is shown as messy, uncomfortable, game-playing and completely erotic. Even in Minnie's relationships with others, she's shown as in charge of what she wants. At one point, a classmate she's sleeping with says to her that it scares him that she's so passionate during sex.
Despite Minnie's mostly sex-positive attitude and experiences, she's not fully positive about her situation. She pores over her naked body, wondering if she's too fat or if her breasts are too small, frets over whether or not she'll ever be loved, wonders where her life will go—thoughts that are entirely steeped in the teen experience, but are still completely universal. Her relationships make her disillusioned with men, berating them so fiercely that at one point she declares: "I hate men but I fuck them hard, hard, hard and thoughtlessly because I hate them so much." But at the same time, she desperately wants connection with people—men included. It's not just about sex of course, it's a coming-of-age story about a girl finding her artistic talent, trying to find her place in a messy family situation, and finding herself through stumbling past every dark San Francisco street corner.
Gloeckner's source material gets a bit more into Minnie's life than the film has time for—fleshing out her messy family situation, introducing other friends and delving into much darker depths than the film, which is touched upon in the last act, hinting at sometimes how dark growing really can be. But The Diary of a Teenage Girl truly keeps the spirit of the graphic novel—all of its anarchist messiness, sexual longing, teen angst—anchored perfectly by the tremendous performance of Bel Powley.
The triumphant end of the film feels like not only a win for Minnie, but for those trying to eradicate "good girl" nonsense everywhere. Minnie hates men, fucks men, loves men, does drugs, drinks heavily, draws comics, and supports her friends. She's done bad things, will continue to do bad things, and balances them with the good. She's not a good girl or a bad one—just a one living her life, one passionate fuck-up at a time.