REVIEW: ‘How to Build a Girl’

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How to Build a Girl Cover

How to Build a Girl is a teen coming of age comedy film directed by Coky Giedroyc starring Beanie Feldstein based on the novel by Caitlin Moran. Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein) is 16 and like most teens, in real life and in movies, she has absolutely no idea what trajectory her life is set on. All she knows is that she is sick of her life poor in the English countryside, she wants an exciting life that involves boys, and she wants to be a writer. When she wins a contest to be a music critic at a major publication, she gets a chance at all of this.

Or, Dolly Wilde does, anyway. What How to Build a Girl does really well is that it sets its hyperbolic parable within a realistic life. Johanna’s family isn’t the typical disheveled mess of teen dramas the audience is meant to abhor on the protagonist’s behalf until they realize they’re not so bad after all like in The Goonies. Nor are they the overly idyllic family whose perfection needs to be rebelled against a la Ferris Bueller. The Morrigans are just trying their best. They usually do a poor job of it, but every now and then they get it right.

Johanna’s father (Paddy Considine) is a musician who never got his break and lives constantly with that regret. A total recipe for a deadbeat dad. Yet, he’s really supportive of Johanna and really never puts her down or gives up on her, even when she makes a fool of herself and doesn’t share much of his interests. Her mother (Sarah Solemani) is eternally depressed, in part the result of the unplanned twin birth of children four and five. But unlike the typical caricature of depression, she reflects a real person, cracking excellent jokes and caring for her family despite her depression. Coming from a realistic family makes How to Build a Girl more relatable and ultimately helps drive its morals home stronger.

Johanna is an exceptional writer, but she is given her writing job at the impressionable young age of 16 because the world British music journalism is run by men looking to exploit her. Over the course of the film, Johanna goes from a straight edge girl to drinking, smoking, and having sex all to excess. I was inclined at first to dislike how the film seems to tie Johanna’s morality to her good fortune, likability as a character, and worth to the people around her who matter. Fortunately, a half-naked diatribe to her deleterious colleagues shows the Johanna, and any woman can be full human beings who pursue their passions and live outside of the boxes society draws for them.

How to Build a Girl Dolly Wilde

How to Build a Girl also subverts its genre because the only love story is between the main character and herself. There is a bit of bait and switch. Johanna meats an older musician, John Kite (Alfie Allen) who she falls completely in love with. For a while, the way he calls her Baby had me worried there was a Dirty Dancing situation going on but without the long build-up. Ultimately, the sobriquet was the same metaphor for Johanna’s innocence as in the classic 80s movie, but the love goes unrequited from John. Their relationship to one another resolving to remain as confidants and friends is refreshing in a genre that usually shoehorns relationships, satisfying as they frequently are, into every protagonist’s life. It also plays directly into the film’s ultimate theme.

Johanna spends How to Build a Girl playing superhero to her family by bringing in their only real income. She does so by completely abandoning herself in exchange for manufacturing Dolly Wilde’s persona out of the expectations and demands of others. And she figures it out all on her own. Well, with the help of her wall of heroes comprised of all her favorite authors with whom she converses frequently throughout the film. It is odd at first, but ultimately endearing the way she talks to the people in the pictures and they make some excellent jokes. But ultimately, it’s not a pep talk from her mom or dad or the disappointment of her brother and best friend Krissi (Laurie Kynaston) that brings Johanna to the peak of her journey. It isn’t the shame of John either. It’s a summit Johanna climbs to on her own and then leans on the people around her as she climbs back down into the film’s resolution.

Feldstein’s British accent leaves a bit to be desired, and some of How to Build a Girl is somewhat dry, but its comedic moments are great, the hyperbolic tone is perfect, and the morals of the story are well delivered through means non-standard to the teenage coming of age genre. Feldstein has proven to be a master of the genre and How to Build a Girl is worth watching for her performance alone.

How to Build a Girl is available now on demand.

How to Build a Girl
  • 8/10
    Rating - 8/10
8/10

TL;DR

Feldstein’s British accent leaves a bit to be desired, and some of How to Build a Girl is somewhat dry, but its comedic moments are great, the hyperbolic tone is perfect, and the morals of the story are well delivered through means non-standard to the teenage coming of age genre. Feldstein has proven to be a master of the genre and How to Build a Girl is worth watching for her performance alone.