At the start of director Coky Giedroyc’s “How to Build a Girl,” the film’s protagonist, sixteen-year-old Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein), is an example of the typical bookish introvert – an overachieving student who dreams of someday becoming a writer. She hands in papers that are much longer than assigned, stares longingly into the “cool kids” room at school, and even has a wall of her bedroom covered in photographs of her favorite idols (both real and fictional) who frequently converse with her. She lives in a cramped house in Wolverhampton with her parents (Paddy Considine and Sarah Solemani) and four brothers, sharing a partitioned room with her oldest brother, Krissi (Laurie Kynaston). Most of this will soon change.
Johanna wins the opportunity to read her poetry on live TV, an event that does not end well. After the disastrous experience, Krissi encourages her to put her poetry aside and enter another writing contest that will award its winner the role of journalist for a weekly independent rock newspaper. While Krissi is a supportive brother (he and Johanna are shown to have a strong brother/sister relationship), he seems to be leading Johanna astray because she’s no rock fan. Instead of letting Johanna listen to one of his rock records, Krissi stands by as Johanna sends in a review for a recording of the Broadway show “Annie.” What!? Why does either of them think this a good idea?
Yet, luck is in her favor. Initially called in for the job as a joke, Johanna manages to talk her way into covering a concert, quickly reinventing herself as Dolly Wilde and falling head-over-heels for the rock scene. Johanna just as quickly conforms to her co-worker’s point-of-view, transforming into a mean-spirited critic widely loved by readers and just as equally reviled by the artists.
“How to Build a Girl,” based on the book by Caitlin Moran, is about a young woman’s journey of self-discovery. In this case, that path takes a torturous turn, shifting an initially likable character into a vicious, self-absorbed bully. Feldstein, sporting a borderline-passable British accent, makes Johanna believable, effectively showing the character’s evolution as she changes from wallflower to It Girl of the moment. In some ways, Johanna (and her journey) is like Lindsay Lohan’s Cady from “Mean Girls,” just without the snappy comebacks and throwdowns. Johanna may finally have the popularity she’s always desired but it has come with a steep price tag.
The audience gets the idea that Dolly is a personality to be reckoned with; the movie and Giedroyc’s direction – not so much. Giedroyc tries to keep the movie’s tone light. Johanna’s interactions with her idols on her bedroom wall are goofy, attempting to give the film a quirky edge that’s almost over-the-edge. While these sequences are meant to help show Johanna’s overactive imagination, they don’t always play in the film’s favor. The film’s tone maintains this light approach even when the material moves into darker directions.
“How to Build a Girl” follows familiar character arcs and features safe direction. It’s an entertaining enough watch, holding the viewer’s attention until its story is tied up with a bow (however unsatisfying some of the resolutions may be). Ultimately, the audience is left with the sensation that this movie doesn’t rise up to its full potential.
(Review by Bret Oswald)