James Jay Edwards reviews How to Build a Girl, a coming-of-age movie starring Beanie Feldstein, written by Caitlin Moran, and directed by Coky Giedroyc.
From the very first scene of How to Build a Girl, the audience knows that the movie is going to be bad. It’s all in the terrible British accent that spews from the mouth of quirky It-girl Beanie Feldstein (Booksmart) as she plays the titular Girl who is being Built. And it doesn’t get any better from there.
Set in the mid-1990s, How to Build a Girl stars Feldstein as Johanna Morrigan, a shy teenage writer whose works are inspired by talks with pictures of her heroes on her walls. Looking for adventure, Johanna submits a piece to the New Music Express, the biggest weekly rock publication in England. After a bit of selling herself (and a lot of pestering), the mag’s editor gives her a shot. She re-invents herself as irrepressible scenester rock critic Dolly Wilde, and the transformation is a hit – she becomes the jerk journalist that all of Great Britain loves to hate. Her new persona also alienates the real Johanna from her family, friends, and coworkers … and also from the musician she mistakenly befriends (Game of Thrones’s Alfie Allen).
(How to Build a Girl, theatrical release poster, IFC Films)
Writer Caitlin Moran (Raised by Wolves) adapted her own novel into the screenplay that director Coky Giedroyc (Harlots) tries to bring to life. Emphasis on the “try,” because there’s very little life in How to Build a Girl. The most interesting characters are the pictures on Johanna’s wall, which do, in fact, talk back to her (and the casting of the “God Wall” is inspired, with Gemma Arterton as Maria Von Trapp, Jameela Jamil as Cleopatra, and Michael Sheen as Sigmund Freud). When the most three-dimensional characters in your movie are the two-dimensional ones, you know you’ve got a problem.
And honestly, fans should be able to expect more from Beanie Feldstein. After playing the subtle sidekick in Lady Bird and brilliantly taking the lead herself in Booksmart, she seemed poised to take the comedy world by storm. How to Build a Girl is a misstep for her, a bad choice that, hopefully for the young actress, is more the exception than the rule. But, it’s not just Feldstein. Sure, her performance is cartoony and annoying, but the sophomoric script doesn’t help her at all. There are no surprises, no jaw drops, no huge revelations. The whole thing is just very … typical. It’s neither a heartwarming coming-of-age movie, nor is it a snapshot time capsule of a fun time period. It’s just a disposable comedy, and one that isn’t even very funny at that.
(How to Build a Girl, IFC Films)
How to Build a Girl is Almost Famous with less heart and more superficiality. It tries to play the part, even echoing the “you made friends with the band” sentiments, but it isn’t nearly as effective. The most gut-punching scene in the movie comes when Johanna/Dolly is asked by her father, an aging failed musician played by The Death of Stalin’s Paddy Considone, to help push his optimistic “brass ring” record. At first, she agrees, but when her colleagues at the magazine hear (and ridicule) the platter, Dolly joins in, choosing her insecure need to feel cool over her loyalty to her family. It’s not a big plot device, just a short scene, but it speaks volumes about Dolly’s phony character, way more than the ups and downs of her relationship with her rock star idol ever can. In that one brief moment, it’s clear that she has built her girl the wrong way.
With its music, style, and attitude, the nineties alternative rock scene in England is a great backdrop for a movie. It’s a setting that deserves a better movie than How to Build a Girl. Maybe someday we’ll get one. And maybe it’ll even give Beanie Feldstein a chance to redeem herself.