Movie review: ‘How to Build a Girl’ has some structural problems
It’s a lousy title - one that isn’t explained till just before the end credits run - but it’s not a bad movie. Neither, unfortunately, is much of a good movie. Even so, the target audience of female tweens and teens, as well as some slightly older young women, just might eat this up.
The opening shot, a full-screen close-up on the face of Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein, from “Lady Bird” and “Booksmart”) makes it clear that this is going to be a story about her ... about her insecurities, her dreams, her missteps, and eventually her redemption.
It’s 1993. She’s 16, lives with her family in the British town of Wolverhampton, and is an overachiever at school, always writing long-winded essays, much to the consternation of her English teacher. But writing is her passion; the girl can’t help it.
She also has a regular practice of escaping from reality, and spends a great deal of time in her bedroom, having conversations, in a Harry Potter-like manner, with photos and paintings on her wall. And those folks on the wall - Sigmund Freud, Sylvia Plath, and Maria von Trapp among them - are ready to offer some advice, at least in Johanna’s head.
Though the family is close, there are money problems. Breeding border collies doesn’t quite pay the bills. On top of that, mom (Sarah Solemani) has a touch of depression, and loose, laidback dad (Paddy Considine, terrific in the role), is a bit of a scoundrel, as well as being a frustrated ex-drummer who still wants to play in a pop band.
Johanna’s hopes are boosted when she hears of an opening to be a rock critic at the (fictional) London fanzine Disc and Music Echo, and even though her taste in music leans toward “Tomorrow” from “Annie,” she catches a break, due in part to an assignment that no one at the magazine wants, and gets a gig covering a concert.
But first, she decides to reinvent herself, physically changing her appearance and wardrobe from the relatively bland Johanna Morrigan to the glitzy, lipsticked, top-hatted Dolly Wilde. From that point on, every scene, and almost every moment of the movie, rests on the shoulders of Feldstein, who goes at it with a big dose of frenetic energy and a winning smile. Her dream is coming true, she lands more review assignments, and she tries for a step up the freelance ladder by asking to write a feature - and getting a yes.
This leads to a third strong performance in the film - after those of Feldstein and Considine - and the introduction of pop star and singer of sad songs John Kite (Alfie Allen, Theon from “Game of Thrones”), who is to be her first interview subject (and it turns out that Allen is a very good singer!).
Complications arise, the term “off the record” might not be quite clear to the novice interviewer, emotions veer out of control, things go badly, and a John Kite poster starts talking to her, attempting to help her out of the problems she inadvertently creates for herself. One of them involves the changes she finds herself going through. Her magazine wants tough stories, not fawning pieces, and Johanna plunges down a dark hole that results in new, not very pleasant personalities taking root in her. Her profiles and reviews turn nasty, her attitude toward her family becomes one of a jerk, she becomes recognized for her “toxic writing,” and she’s proud of it.
She morphs into a protagonist that no one will be rooting for, not even that young target audience. Most of this works quite well in a dramatic sense. But some lazy writing late in the film leads to a lame plot twist that turns everything around too conveniently, with wrongs being righted too easily.
For a brief moment, the film again finds its footing, with Alfie Allen’s acting range saving the day, but then we get an unnecessary breaking of the fourth wall at the very end with a message delivered to anyone still interested - those young girls again - to be yourself. That lesson was already there, in the words of the characters. It sure didn’t need to be given twice.
“How to Build a Girl” premieres on VOD platforms on May 8.
Ed Symkus can be reached at email@example.com.
“How to Build a Girl”
Written by Caitlin Moran; directed by Coky Giedroyc
With Beanie Feldstein, Alfie Allen, Paddy Considine, Sarah Solemani