In this engaging coming-of-age flick, Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein – Booksmart, Ladybird) is a nerdy teenager living on a council estate in Wolverhampton, England in 1993. Her Dad’s a ne’er-do-well aging rocker. Her Mom’s suffering from post-partum depression after the birth of twins boys. And Johanna just wants to get away from them all. So when one of her other brothers shows her an ad for a writing job at a rock and roll magazine, she sends a sample article. She knows nothing about rock music, but she can write and what does she have to lose?
Despite the fact that her submission was a review of the musical “Annie,” Johanna gets an interview, which it turns out is just a joke, but she talks them into giving her a go anyway. And before you know it, she’s dyed her hair bright red, christened herself Dolly Wilde and is heading out to clubs and meeting musicians and she loves it. But when she talks her way into writing a feature story and then turns in a loving ode to the musician in question rather than an actual article, it seems her days are numbered. That is until she comes up with a new winning strategy!
Johanna decides to use her full verbal arsenal to take down each and every musician out there (including Joni Mitchell!), becoming the Queen of Snark and turning herself into a media darling. Soon she’s making real money, signing autographs, and enjoying entrée into the boys’ club at work, and it’s everything she ever thought she wanted. But of course it isn’t. She’s still crushing on John Kite (Alfie Allen –John Wick, Jojo Rabbit) that kind musician she wrote the love ode to, and when they meet up again and he rebuffs her amorous come-on (she is still just a teen), she turns on him. Of course by the end, she’s learned a huge life lesson and moved on to a more constructive use of her considerable talents.
If you saw Booksmart, and you really should, you’ve seen Beanie Feldstein in a coming-of-age comedy. The two share a lot, the bookish girls on the cusp of adulthood who haven’t had the social life they need, who learn the hard way about love and friendship and themselves. Both work mainly because Ms. Feldstein can really command the screen. She’s funny and fragile and strong and a fine young actress (who also happens to be Jonah Hill’s sister). How to Build a Girl is definitely raunchier since it’s set in the world of sex and drugs and rock and roll. It’s also very funny and ultimately a fun ride.
It’s streaming now on multiple sites.
[Mainstream Chick’s take: I preferred Booksmart over How to Build a Girl, but both put Beanie Feldstein high on the list of young women to watch in the years ahead. She’s crazy talented, and even pulls off a decent British accent, though she seems to be aging backward in her films (playing 16 while in her mid-20s). How to Build a Girl puts a fresh spin on familiar coming-of-age fare about self-discovery, reinvention, and being true to one’s self. The more scathing Johanna is in her writing, the more popular she becomes. And while that approach eventually comes crashing down on top of her, she finds value in the journey, painful as it may sometimes be. How to Build a Girl is based on a best-selling, semi-autobiographical novel by Caitlin Moran, who also penned the screenplay. So this could be a fine pick for your next Book and Movie Club double-feature. But seriously, if you haven’t seen Booksmart yet, watch that first. It’s got a sharper, wittier edge and greater mainstream appeal. -hb]