Review: In HOW TO BUILD A GIRL, Beanie Feldstein Shines
Gemma Arterton, Michael Sheen, and Emma Thompson also star in director Coky Giedroyc's lively comedy, inspired by a true story.
Falling somewhere between Almost Famous and Ladybird, Coky Giedroyc's How to Build a Girl, based on a novel by journalist Caitlin Moran, who also wrote the script, is a fairydust-filled coming of age story that is at times almost too fantastic to be believed.
But, considering that the story of a nerdy 16-year old high schooler from a crowded working class household in Wolverhampton becoming a overnight rock critic sensation actually happened to Moran, it lends more credibility than one might expect -- just a little more amped up with rainbow sparkles. And thanks to Beanie Feldstein (Booksmart, Ladybird)'s electrifying performance, How to Build a Girl is an enjoyable romp that puts an instant smile on your face.
The year is 1993. Feldstein plays Johanna Morrigan, a nerdy but imaginative high schooler who writes to escape her dreadful suburban existence. From the bedroom she shares with her supportive brother Krissi, she writes funny, witty stories and poems while conversing with her literary, philosopher, artist heroes (Sigmund Freud, Sylvia Platt, Elizabeth Taylor, Frida Kahlo, Maria von Trapp and others) who adorn their bedroom wall.
After appearing in a local TV poetry contest to build up her confidence, Johanna applies for a writing gig at a posh London rock magazine even though she doesn't know anything about music. Her funny take on "Tomorrow" from Annie the musical leads her a job interview. Initially brushed off by the cynical writing staff, her persistence pays off and she lands her first gig.
Reinventing herself as Dolly Wilde, with a fiery red hairdo and a Cabaret style slick outfit, she experiences a rock concert, a plane ride and sex, all for the first time. After interviewing John Kite (Alfie Allen of Game of Thrones), a soulful Irish singer, smitten Johanna writes a schoolgirl crush of a review of his music and gets rejected by her snarky co-workers. She is reminded that there's a difference between being a fan girl and critic, and that one has to be a bitch sometimes.
Following that advice to the heart, Johanna turns herself into a queen bitch of the music publishing with a venomous tongue and becomes an overnight celebrity. The sudden fame brings money in and sexual escapades. But her cynicism bleeds into her family and friends and she is flunking school. All of this is happening and Johanna hasn't even turned seventeen yet.
How to Build a Girl easily could have been a 'fame got to her head' cautionary tale. But its sunny disposition never lets the party down. Feldstein's version of super awkward but funny and charming teen gets big laughs. So does Paddy Considine as forever supportive but illegally-breeding-border-collies-at-home-to-support-music-career dad who shows off his drum skills (as Considine is a great musician in real life) and Chris O'Dowd as a twitchy local TV host. Cameo appearances by Gemma Arterton (Maria von Trapp), Michael Sheen (Freud), Sue Perkins (Emily Bronte) among others as Johanna's heroes also lend a sense of levity to the film.
How to Build a Girl is a funny movie largely riding on the charm of its star. Appearing in her first lead role after building a reputation for playing an awkward, overweight besties in high school comedies and a college virgin nerd in What We Do in the Shadows TV series, Feldstein commands the screen as a wide-eyed teenager embarking on a road self-discovery and redemption.
The film opens in select theaters, digital and cable VOD today, May 8, 2020, via IFC Films.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com