WATCHING THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL is like being hugged by a Lisa Frank panda while floating on a sea of Hitachi Magic Wands and cotton candy. It's like diving into a clawfoot tub of LUSH products while wearing a snorkel full of root beer. Its color palate is indica-laced rainbow sherbet. Its heart is a sentient mug of hot cocoa. Its eyes are Bel Powley's cartoonishly gigantic, wide-open baby blues.
It's also about statutory rape, and that juxtaposition's caused no shortage of controversy for Marielle Heller's directorial debut. That's too bad, because at its core, Teenage Girl is about a 15-year-old coming into her own as an artist (it's based on the autobiographical work of real-life cartoonist Phoebe Gloeckner), a storyline I wish more people cared about enough to write into movies. If you love Angela Chase, or Rory Gilmore, or Tavi Gevinson, or, I don't know, HARRIET THE SPY, you will love Minnie Goetze, the film's sex-obsessed, Aline Kominsky-worshipping, budding cartoonist heroine. Powley imbues Minnie's adolescent longing and bad decisions with unshakeable whimsy and a complexity you'd expect of someone who lives as much in her drawings as she does in her chaotic household in '70s San Francisco.
There, her deeply irresponsible mom, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig, who is perfect), snorts cocaine in the living room; her little sister, Gretel, stomps around like a tiny blonde Daria; and responsible adults don't exist. When Minnie decides she wants to offload her tedious virginity to Charlotte's 35-year-old boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard, living proof that NO ONE looks attractive or trustworthy with a pervstache), he says yes.
If a grown man fucking around with a minor is the definition of exploitative, Heller's movie never is. Bad things happen to Minnie—Monroe; a terrible girlfriend who tries to pimp her out for drugs; a separate, brief, and failed foray into prostitution—but she's never without agency and, crucially, she's never objectified. The only time she appears on-screen fully naked, she's alone, looking at herself in a mirror. The film may open with Minnie's search for love and validation from other people, but it ends with the legitimizing, exhilarating discovery that her most important relationship is with herself. There are plenty of movies out there about coercive relationships that leave you wondering if the Minnie in the equation will be okay. But while Diary of a Teenage Girl leaves many questions unanswered, that, miraculously, is never one of them.