Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | May 7th, 2020
How to Build a Girl (Coky Giedroyc, 2019) 3½ out of 4 stars.
In less than three years, since her memorable supporting turn in Greta Gerwig’s 2017 Lady Bird, American actress Beanie Feldstein has gone from best friend to leading role, in both last year’s Booksmart and now this spring’s How to Build a Girl, a cinematic adaptation of author Caitlin Moran’s 2014 semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. Directed by Coky Giedroyc (Women Talking Dirty) from a screenplay by Moran, herself, the film is a rousing celebration of the wild imagination and growing agency of one very special teenage girl. When we first meet her, in the 1990s English working-class town of Wolverhampton, Johanna is a nerdy, anxious high-school outcast; by the end of the film, she has become a confident almost-adult, sure of herself and no longer concerned about what others think. Not surprisingly, she is also a success. Fun and inspiring, and filled with visual flights of fancy, How to Build a Girl offers an uninhibited glimpse of what liberation looks like.
Not that there aren’t consequences for such freedom. At first, though, all seems good. After a disastrous appearance on a local television program’s live poetry contest, Johanna wants to die. It’s bad enough that she gets chased home from school by classmates and has only her dog, Bianca, and brother, Krissi, as friends; bad enough that the family is poor, with twin babies just born, mother in a post-natal depression and father always dreaming of his past as a rock star that never happened; now she has just endured public humiliation, to boot. But Krissi encourages Johanna to apply for a job in London as a music critic, and even though the magazine to which she submits a work sample thinks it’s a joke – she reviews the musical Annie – she nevertheless talks her way into a first gig. They like her style, and soon she transforms herself into an alter ego, “Dolly Wilde,” complete with new hair and outfit, and sees her fortunes rise. Before long, she is paying her parents’ expenses and traveling the country. Not bad for a recently awkward 16-year-old.
Beyond Feldstein, perfect in the role, the rest of the cast shines, as well, with Laurie Kynaston (England Is Mine), Sarah Solemani (Greed), and Paddy Considine (Girl on a Bicycle) – as Krissi, mom and dad – especially noteworthy. So is Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy on HBO’s Game of Thrones), who plays a heartthrob of a rock star whom Johanna interviews and then, predictably, falls in love with. He turns out to be different than we expected, thanks to both Moran’s writing and Allen’s very fine performance.
In addition to the excellent ensemble, Giedroyc’s mise-en-scène is often delightfully mischievous, with evocative montages covering Johanna’s sexual awakening and her transformation into a wicked destroyer of wannabe-stars’ dreams. And then there are those pictures and posters on the walls of Johanna’s room, or in a public restroom, or at a bus stop, that all come to life just when our protagonist needs a good pep talk, with some surprising cameos within those frames. All of it comes together, sometimes a little too neatly for its own good (the film’s structure occasionally creaking under the weight of its contrived structure), in a gentle conclusion where Johanna gets the chance to course-correct, keep what changes were for the better and jettison the rest. May all girls get a chance to build themselves up in their own similarly unique ways.