HOW TO BUILD A GIRL – Review
So, who’s ready for a nostalgic hop across the pond? But really, after a couple of months lockdown, who’s not up for that? And what kind of nostalgia, any particular decade? Why let’s bounce back to the wild, weird 1990s. Oh really? Now I know how my folks felt when we went crazy for the 50’s back in the late 70s. But there’s one thing all those eras have in common: rock n’ roll, or the more encompassing “pop music”. Toss in lotsa’ family drama, some “coming of age” angst, and a smidgen of snoggin’ (well, romance is more apt) and you’ve got this flick’s recipe. Actually it’s more of an instructions guide, but don’t let the title lure you into thinking that it’s a reboot (or “re-imagining”) of the John Hughes teen fantasy WEIRD SCIENCE. Nope, that’s not the gist of this self-empowerment manual/journey that’s HOW TO BUILD A GIRL.
That title girl is fifteen-year-old high schooler Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein) who daydreams about the perfect boy that will change her life. Well, since that’s not going anywhere, she plots her own destiny as an aspiring writer, a big goal for someone growing up in a council estate in Wolverhampton. Dad Pat (Paddy Considine), an aspiring musician struggles to make ends meet on his disability benefits, while mum Angie (Sarah Solemani) is a near-zombie after recently birthing twins (at age 38). And Johanna has two brothers, grade-schooler Lupin (Stellan Powell) and a grade-ahead-of her Krissi (Laurie Kynaston), who’s also yearning for a boyfriend. After winning a writing competition, she makes a splash on a local TV morning “chat” show. Spurred on by the taped pictures on her bedroom wall of her idols and inspirations (they come to life when nobody’s around but her), Johanna sets her sights on becoming a rock music reviewer/journalist for the glossy “fanzine” called “Disc & Music Echo” (DME). Most of the London bullpen scoffs at her, but one staffer (Frank Dillane) convinces the editor to give her a chance. But first, Johanna must “make herself over”, create a persona. Dyeing her hair a rich red magenta and donning an outfit that resembles DC comics “super-magician” Zatanna (top hat, tails, and fishnet stockings), she adopts the “pen name” Dolly Wilde. DME gets lots of positive feedback on her piece, so they give her a showcase assignment, a one-on-one interview/profile of pop sensation John Kite (Alfie Allen). The two make an emotional connection resulting in a fawning “fan-girl” puff piece that nearly gets her fired. To keep the money flowing Johanna decides to turn Dolly into an acerbic, name-calling, “poison pen” critic, which earns her more acclaim and cash. But what happens when the character she’s created starts to take over? Will the demonic diva Dolly obliterate the sweet jovial Johanna? Or will she resist the siren call of fame to stay true to herself?
After sharing the screen in recent teen “drama-dies” like LADY BIRD and BOOKSMART, Feldstein gets the chance to carry a film on her own talents. And she does for the most part, despite the too obvious story mechanics (and a whispy, breathy accent). In the opening sequences, she’s got an effervescent energy, lighting up the screen as she glides from home to school, then soaring into the London DME offices like a stealth bomber. Her wide-eyed optimism for that first half makes the transition to the dark side in the second act a bit too difficult to accept. Luckily she has excellent acting support, particularly from Kynaston who deftly morphs from a delighted cheerleader ( a spin on the best gay pal of cliched “rom-coms”) to the true confidant who will deliver that much-needed “wake-up call” to get her back on track. At one point he delivers a monologue about his very closeted beau that is heart-wrenching. Considine is an endearing delight as the playful patriarch who barely stays on the “straight and narrow”, wanting to care for his family but still holding to a tiny bit of his rock n’ roll dreams. A good deal of the drama is handled deftly by Solemani, whose Angie adores her kids but fights the energy-draining effects of her late in life twins. Though her eyes are nearly always at “half-mast” they’re filled with affection. As for Dolly’s encounters, Allen is quite compelling as the somewhat jaded pop performer whose muse is awakened thanks to her open nature. Aside from her family, Johanna has the strongest emotional connection with him. Plus there are some terrific cameos from many talented British comic vets. Chris O’Dowd is hilariously awkward as the stiff TV host blindsided by Johanna’s studio coup. Joanna Scanlan is superb as Johanna’s tough but encouraging school writing teacher. Emma Thompson shows up close to the finale as another mentor who guides with just the right hint of snark. Best of all is the “who’s who” wall of idols in Johanna’s bedroom including some inspired pairings from Michael Sheen as Freud to Lucy Punch as Sylvia Plath and Sharon Hogan from TV’s “Catastrophe” as a very hard-edged Jo March.
A nice blend of whimsey and satire is achieved in the first half-hour thanks to the assured direction by TV vet Coky Giedroyc and the screenplay by Caitlin Moran, based on her novel. This is especially true as Johanna literally fills her backyard with every type of fantasy “dream boy”. But things change with the introduction of the Dolly personality and the story starts to stray into familiar “morality lesson” terittory. It becomes more jarring as Dolly almost transforms into Johanna’s “Ms. Hyde”, sloshing booze, and dismissing her family. This is driven home by the film’s most graphic sequence (no doubt earning that R rating) as Dolly cruelly and in great detail, relates the laundry list of sex partners (and positions) to her frustrated older brother. It’s a lurid montage that seems so out of place in the story of a teen following her dreams. We’ve seen that downward spiral in too many young adult pop tales. The same could be said for the interchangeable settings (I almost expected the family from last year’s BLINDED BY THE LIGHT to be next door) which made the era hard to identify (there are no cell phones so is it the 80s, but there are still cassettes, so is it…). Plus the delightful “talking wall of fame” is completely forgotten for the middle hour. Feldstein’s Johanna is (for much of the tale) a compelling heroine but HOW TO BUILD A GIRL stumbles and fumbles toward the task’s completion.
2 Out of 4
HOW TO BUILD A GIRL opens in select drive-ins across the country and is available as a Video On Demand through cable and satellite systems and can be purchased through most streaming platforms