How to Build a Girl was directed by Coky Giedroyc from a script by Caitlin Moran, based on her novel of the same name, and stars Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird, Booksmart) as Johanna Morrigan, a teenager and aspiring writer living with her down-on-their-luck family on a council estate in Wolverhampton, England in the 1990’s. Johanna doesn’t have a lot of opportunities outside of high school to gain traction in life, or pull herself out of her lowly circumstances, but with a zest of imagination, and ambition like an unstoppable object, Johanna uses her knowledge of rock music to land herself a job as a critic with a well-known weekly magazine. As she gains popularity among those in her circles, she re-invents herself as Dolly Wilde, a poppy, adventurous young woman with a talented ear, a deft hand, and a savage critical bite. But with popularity comes a price, and soon Johanna is forced to decide whether paying the rent for her family’s home comes at a greater cost: that of being true to herself and her work. Also starring Alfie Allen, Giedroyc seeks to explore with this film not only the nuances and pitfalls of critical analysis, but also the challenges and tribulations of how a young woman builds herself, and all the wonders of life therein.
This is a challenging one to review. For one, the plot description runs a little bit thin because there’s not a whole lot of plot to this movie. Coming-of-age stories don’t necessarily need a lot of plot since their main emphasis is on building up characters, but we don’t really get our main character into the point of the story until a while into the film. For about the first half hour, we’re just stuck in a small house with a bunch of characters who have unclear motivations, and we’re not sure what the story is actually meant to be. In some cases, that can work, but for this particular film, it just makes the story feel slower and more drawn out than the audience needs. And that’s before we confront the fact that most of the elements of the first act that aren’t the mysteriously-unmotivated characters don’t really have much of an impact. This is certainly one of the more experimental films released in 2020 thus far, and while I certainly appreciate experimentation as an action in filmmaking, not all of it entirely works for this. The first act of the film is extremely choppy, introducing elements left and right that we’re meant to find significant (especially the more out-of-the-box ones), but they don’t seem to have much bearing on the story at all, apart from one or two scenes where someone says a line or performs an action that spurs the next plot point. For everything the movie sets up during the opening twenty minutes or so, none of it feels as if it means a whole lot to the main character, which causes a disconnect when those elements appear later on, especially since most of the story happens without the use of those set-ups.
The film does have some good ideas, though, and once the story gets going, we become privy to them, and the filmmaking starts to shine a little brighter. When the film gets more experimental in the second act, that’s when it works the best. The story becomes streamlined, and we know where it’s all meant to be heading as Johanna begins to find her style of voice within her writing (though it certainly would have been nice if we were actually able to read more of that writing, rather than just hearing about it through other characters). There are some truly fantastic sequences towards the middle and end of the second act that showcase the talent Giedroyc has at crafting a story that is simultaneously fantastical and weighted, and it is these sections of the film that I wish covered more of the whole.
Really, the main draw of this film is Beanie Feldstein. She’s able to command the screen well enough to still make the film worth watching, but unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot else to sing about. Feldstein’s performance is suitable for what the film is attempting to do, but too often, it feels as if the limits of the screenplay are holding her back from unleashing the true power of her talents. When she becomes truly vibrant is in the presence of Alfie Allen, who plays a young rock musician in the film that acts as the catalyst for her first turn towards more negative critical analysis. Allen and Feldstein are both tremendously talented performers, and they have a real chemistry as the script builds their friendship up from what starts as a regular interview. Allen in particular plays largely against type here, and his tenderness towards Feldstein is a refreshing change of pace, especially since he pulls it off so well, one almost forgets he’s played no less than two characters whose insecurities manifest as rudeness. In fact, perhaps the film might have been better if the friendship between these two characters were the main focus of the story, rather than Feldstein’s rock critic turning evil and then good again. Great coming-of-age stories need friendships at the center of them, either to be broken forever, or repaired later, and unless she’s on screen with Allen, Feldstein’s Johanna doesn’t seem to connect with anyone in her life, not even her family. We’re not made to care about any of them early on, and so when she attempts to reconcile with them, we don’t really feel anything.
Sometimes a film’s thematic elements are what hold it above the rest, or the fumbling of them is what holds them below. What this film has to say about being a critic of anything is worth listening to (especially in the way it criticizes purposely negative critique as being useful, but hollow – looking at you, CinemaSins), but the message is so muddled beneath the coming-of-age story the film also wants to tell that it feels unfocused in the telling. Quite often in How to Build a Girl, the building of the girl cuts into the building of the critic, and since we don’t really get to see much of the girl’s critical process, we fail to understand how significant elements are being built. The obvious ones are, well, obvious, but there’s not much nuance in the crafting of Johanna’s character, apart from the kind of work she does. We know where the story around her is meant to be going, but not where she’s meant to be going within it. A crucial part of coming-of-age narratives is what they say not only about the characters in the story, but what they say about the world in which their characters operate, and though there’s the sliver of an idea, neither the “rock critic” storyline, nor the “girl discovers herself” storyline contain any sort of significant commentary that other movies haven’t expressed in clearer ways. Still, trying and failing a little is better than not trying at all, and one thing you can’t say about Moran and Giedroyc is that they didn’t try to tell a compelling story in a unique way.
How to Build a Girl may not be one of the best films of the year, or one of the worst, which should make it one of the most middling and forgettable; while it certainly has many forgettable elements, however, the film itself is unique enough to stick in the mind for at least a little while. Feldstein and Allen manage to hold together a script that doesn’t quite give either of them their proper dues, but does feature some more experimental elements to keep the story moving along so that it doesn’t become too boring. Whether Giedroyc will go on to make small-budget masterpieces or not is anyone’s guess, but if that someday occurs, I have a strong feeling folks will cite this film as the place where she began her climb to stardom (though that climb could be longer than most).
I’m giving “How to Build a Girl” a 6.8/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.