How to Build a Girl, 2020.
Directed by Coky Giedroyc.
Starring Beanie Feldstein, Emma Thompson, Alfie Allen, Paddy Considine, Sarah Solemani, Laurie Kynaston, Chris O’Dowd, Frank Dillane, Tadhg Murphy, Jameela Jamil, Joanna Scanlan, Lucy Punch, Arinzé Kene, Stellan Powell, Bobby Schofield, Hammed Animashaun, Ziggy Heath, Sue Perkins, Sonia Goswami, Ryan Nolan, Scott Mason-Cherry, Dónal Finn, Asheq Akhtar, Gemma Arterton, Lily Allen, Mel Giedroyc, Sharon Horgan, Alexei Sayle, and Michael Sheen.
The novel charts the journey of teenager Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein), who reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde: fast-talking, lady sex-adventurer, moves to London, and gets a job as a music critic in the hope of saving her poverty-stricken family in Wolverhampton
The above synopsis does a well enough job at encapsulating what to expect from director Coky Giedroyc’s adaptation of Caitlin Moran’s book How to Build a Girl (she also wrote the script here), but it also sets up exactly what’s wrong with the movie. Instead of taking the shy and socially awkward yet ambitious teenager Johanna (Beanie Feldstein, who is basically just playing a riff on her Booksmart character in a far inferior movie) and transition her into a poser rock ‘n roll critic selling out her legitimate literary passion while finally getting the opportunity to engage in sexual activity (something she also becomes somewhat addicted to and usually does with young adults, whether it be co-workers or flirting with musicians), the story doesn’t have the confidence to blend those aspects together.
What that means is How to Build a Girl never actually settles into a narrative groove, not only periodically changing tones but consistently leaves one questioning if they are even watching the same movie every 15 minutes or so. In a matter of scenes, it can go from a light treatise on how professional criticism can sometimes be equated to professional shit-talking (much like this review in a way, considering the displeasure I had watching it) to a teen romance about finding yourself. Naturally, some are going to be immediately turned away by the prospect of Beanie Feldstein playing a 16-year-old teenager that wants to fuck Alfie Allen, but the movie is not without well-meaning messages.
It also hurts your head with those messages like a metal album at maximum volume with the headphones on. Coincidentally, Johanna’s father was part of a failed rock ‘n roll band but sees himself with a second chance to achieve notoriety, even if it means having his daughter play one of their old albums around the office (which is basically a toxic cesspool of chauvinistic men encouraging her to trash anyone and everything to get ahead in the industry). It doesn’t go over well, so they decide to shoot the album. There are at least two voiceover narrations explaining symbolic meanings behind this gesture that are nothing more than stating the obvious.
Maybe it’s intended to provide more insight to actual teenagers watching the movie, although the film is also a hard-R romp, so I’m also not sure many teenagers will be watching it in the first place. Even if they do, the edgy content far too often feels out of place, shoved inside of a conventional coming-of-age story (and that’s exactly what this is, even if the opening monologue from Johanna tells audiences that this won’t be cliché). Teenagers and adults alike will find it fake. The third act dabbles in heavier thematic material, proving to be yet another mistake simply because 100 minutes can’t contain or make believable just how often the character of Johanna is altered. There is an appreciation for what it’s trying to do and some topics it wants to address, ultimately getting lost in the shuffle of the Johanna learning the error of her ways and discovering her true passion.
Stylistically, there are a few nice touches. Obsessed with everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to Jo March to Sigmund Freud, portraits are plastered all over Johanna’s bedroom walls that occasionally talk to her (and for the most part are voiced by notable actors such as Michael Sheen or Gemma Arterton), eventually fading away the more she becomes a completely different person. Obviously, Johanna’s wardrobe and outward appearance go from bland and colorless to glamorous, increasing in exaggeration as she continues to drift away from her natural self. For what it’s worth, the supporting cast is also fine; Paddy Considine has a couple of funny lines, and Alfie Allen does the best he can with not much quality material as he tries to open up and recognize her talent while rejecting her advances due to age. Beanie Feldstein also appears excited and engaged with the wobbly constructed plot structure that is difficult for anyone to sell convincingly.
Still, How to Build a Girl is largely a failure as the filmmakers here don’t even know how to properly build a movie. The story never feels like it’s evolving, just always changing and never with enough time for any of the situations to breathe or allow viewers to invest in anything. Johanna might be up and running ready to face the world by the time the credits roll, but the journey there is broken.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com