Thursday, May 21, 2020

Movie Review: How to Build a Girl

How to Build a Girl ** / *****
Directed by: Coky Giedroyc.
Written by: Caitlin Moran based on her novel.
Starring: Beanie Feldstein (Johanna Morrigan), Cleo (Bianca Morrigan), Dónal Finn (Karl Boden), Paddy Considine (Pat Morrigan), Laurie Kynaston (Krissi Morrigan), Stellan Powell (Lupin Morrigan), Sarah Solemani (Angie Morrigan), Andi Oliver (Donna Summer), Michael Sheen (Dr. Freud), Sue Perkins (Emily Bronte), Mel Giedroyc (Charlotte Bronte), Alexei Sayle (Karl Marx), Lily Allen (Elizabeth Taylor), Gemma Arterton (Maria von Trapp), Jameela Jamil (Cleopatra), Lucy Punch (Sylvia Plath), Sharon Horgan (Jo March), Chris O'Dowd (Alan 'Wilko' Wilkinson), Joanna Scanlan (Mrs. Belling), Ralph Prosser (Lee Veltman), Arinzé Kene (Kenny), Ziggy Heath (Derby), Tadhg Murphy (Andy Rock), Bobby Schofield (Pricey), Patsy Ferran (Snow Pixie), Frank Dillane (Tony Rich), Asheq Akhtar (Mr. Sanghera), Hammed Animashaun (Ed Edwards), Alfie Allen (John Kite), Emma Thompson (Amanda Watson). 
Beanie Feldstein has the type of movie star charisma that cannot be learned or taught – you simply have it, or you don’t. That was obvious in Lady Bird and Booksmart, and confirmed by How to Build a Girl, the first movie that Feldstein has to carry all by herself. There isn’t anything wrong with her performance – okay, the British accent isn’t the best in the world, but she captures the character so well I hardly matters. But everything surrounding Feldstein just isn’t as interesting, including a story that forces her through one tired revelation after another. I think the movie does manage to capture that insecure feeling of being a teenage girl – in a world that will beat you up. But it doesn’t manage to capture that world.
Feldstein stars as Johanna, a 16-year-old British schoolgirl, the most talented writer in her class, who wants nothing more than to grow up and be a writer. She lives in the suburbs – far enough away from London that it seems like another planet. She applies to be a music critic – despite the obvious flaw of knowing nothing about music – and soon finds herself a star. This is the early 1990s London, her co-workers are all cynical men in their 20s, and her infectious spirit doesn’t quite jive with theirs. They will war her down. Soon, Johanna has reinvented herself as Dolly – a wild child, with bright red hair and a steampunk wardrobe. She falls for a singer – played by Alfie Allen – but her piece is too wide-eyed, teenage girl mooning for the paper. They want her to be more of an asshole. She will oblige.
It’s odd that How to Build a Girl is a movie at least in part about music, but like Johanna, doesn’t seem to understand music at all. Johanna really could be writing about anything at all – it doesn’t really matter, because the movie doesn’t care about it. Add in more clichés – her father (Paddy Considine), an aspiring musician who somehow hasn’t realized his chance is decades in the rearview, and the tired old refrain about critics adding nothing to society, etc. There are more clichés littered throughout the movie as well.
What keeps the whole thing watchable is Feldstein herself – who is delightful. She has a wall of pictures of her own personal heroes who talk to her (played by a veritable who’s who of British talent). She is a wide-eyed optimist, and while she takes a detour into being a cynic, it never sits on her properly, and she will need to discard it in order to grow.
There is, of course, a message to How to Build a Girl – and it is about being true to yourself, and figuring out who you are. Perhaps you change who you are, but you it for yourself, not anyone else. It’s an old message, but a worthwhile one, and I think that perhaps there is a market of teenage girls who need to here it. I just wish it were in a better movie.

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