Movie Review: How to Build a Girl
By Matthew Huntley
May 28, 2020
“I do not think my adventure starts with a boy. I think it starts with me.”
It’s this sassy mentality that makes “How to Build a Girl” a somewhat different, and therefore refreshing, female-driven, coming-of-age dramedy. Oftentimes, the model for movies of this nature is that the heroine is smarter, humbler and more insightful than those around her. She’s someone who’s wise beyond her years and the only thing holding her back from greatness is the confidence to be bold, daring and honest with herself. Eventually, following a series of physical and emotional transformations, she finds her way and discovers both her inner and outer beauty. Oh, and she finally gets to kiss a boy.
While “How to Build a Girl” contains many of these usual qualities, they aren’t the movie’s main focus. And Johanna’s quest isn’t to land a boy (as she promptly states at the beginning). Rather, she’s desperate to establish her role in the world, and even though she’s familiar with all the fanciful, romantic notions of women getting swept off their feet by some dashing male hero, she’s smart enough to know this isn’t likely to happen in Wolverhampton, a dreary, nondescript, and mostly working class borough in the West Midlands, UK. Johanna wants out, and she’s convinced writing is her ticket, but the question beating at the center of “How to Build a Girl” is whether or not she’s as ready as she thinks she is.
Based on Caitlin Moran’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, Moran’s own screenplay sets this story up in a fairly traditional way, including making Johanna (Beanie Feldstein) a bespectacled, full-figured, nerdy type with flat hair and a pale complexion. She’s insecure and socially awkward, but then again, what 16-year-old isn’t, or at least doesn’t feel like she or he isn’t? She’s also sexually curious but mostly inexperienced and craves both companionship and privacy in equal doses.
In short, Johanna needs something to happen, because she’s both bored and suffocating. At home, she’s one of five kids and the only daughter to parents Pat (Paddy Considine) and Angie (Sarah Solemani). Her dad is a self-proclaimed hippie and drummer who illegally breeds Collies to supplement the family’s already limited income, while her mom struggles with postpartum depression after giving birth to two twin boys. Johanna’s slightly older brother, Krissi (Laurie Kynaston), is her roommate in their small, partitioned room while her younger brother, Lupin (Stellan Powell), is relentless with his line of questioning. It’s no wonder Johanna talks to her collage of famous female literary figures and actresses — ranging from Elizabeth Taylor and Sylvia Plath to the Brontë Sisters and Jo March — and turns to creative writing to release her inner thoughts and frustrations.
Like I said, this story isn’t completely original (I saw a lot of parallels between it and “My Girl,” among other films), but one of the things that sets “How to Build a Girl” apart from bigger-budget Hollywood fare is its grungy and down-to-earth presentation. It’s set in the early ‘90s, which, oddly enough, was the era in which the Grunge music scene was really catching on, and director Coky Giedroyc doesn’t romanticize her characters’ situations or lifestyles. Hubert Taczanowski’s cinematography, Amanda McArthur’s production design, and John Reid’s art direction are subtle yet effective in the way they allow us to gain a sense of Johanna’s lifestyle and see how her lackluster environment contributes to her feelings of stagnation.
There’s also Feldstein, who was so good in the underrated “Booksmart” (2019) and continues to solidify her reputation as an actress who’s unafraid to look silly or bare her entire self to the audience. And despite not being English, she sells her accent seamlessly. Besides, she lets her behavior and vulnerability do most of the talking.
We see early on in the movie when Johanna’s appearance on a local television show for winning a poetry contest backfires, which incentivizes her to try her hand at music criticism. She applies to a hip London magazine called Disco & Music Echo and despite not knowing the first thing about modern music — she has just a handful of cassette tapes, including the “Annie” soundtrack — she’s committed and the magazine gives her a shot.
Soon enough, Johanna proves marketable and suddenly morphs from virginal social outcast into uninhibited music journalist. She assumes the pen name Dolly Wilde and transforms physically (dying her hair purple and sporting a black top hat), sexually (recounting her various experiences with colorful partners), and financially, becoming the family’s new breadwinner. At the same time, however, she begins to lose her moral compass and resorts to cheap, insulting prose aimed at the artists she covers because her cynical editors at the magazine tell her gossip and sensationalism are what sell. And just to stay in their good graces, she’s willing to forsake her relationships to her family and friends, including an up-and-coming rocker (Alfie Allen of “Game of Thrones” fame), who went out of his way to show her kindness.
Around the halfway mark, “How to Build a Girl” starts to shed some of its initial edge and spunk, settling down as a traditional parable about what can happen when one gets in over her head and forgets what’s important in life. I wish Moran’s screenplay had found a more original way to navigate Johanna’s journey through egotism instead of relying on the easy plot devices we get here, and in fact, I was really hoping the movie would retain its nerve and continue to shape Johanna into someone we condemn rather than someone we like. Heroes and heroines don’t always have to be sympathetic and congenial; they just have to be interesting.
Still, film’s value ultimately comes from our believing Johanna could be (and in fact was) a real teenager, struggling to find herself. Despite the machinations of the screenplay and its routine, safe ending, we view it as truthful and see and appreciate Johanna as someone who’s troubled, complex and imperfect. Yes, she’s often the victim, but she’s also capable of victimizing and it’s the movie’s ability and willingness to see Johanna on multiple levels that allows it to hold our attention. We can relate to the wide range of emotions Johanna experiences during her adventure, which, despite not starting with a boy, does end with one, although not in the way we expect.