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Critical darling – ‘How to Build a Girl’

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Every once in a while, a movie comes along that is an unexpected blend of various things that you like, a mélange of your specific combination of interests. Of course, these great tastes may or may not taste great together – that’s up to the talents involved.

Strangely enough, “How to Build a Girl” - currently available on VOD - is just such a blend, and while it isn’t a perfect combination, it is definitely a winning one.

The film – directed by Coky Giedroyc from a screenplay that author Caitlan Moran adapted from her own novel of the same name – checks a lot of boxes for me. Coming of age story? Check. Period piece set in the ‘90s? Check. Culture critic for a protagonist? Check. Hell, it even manages to check the box of “featuring music from the extremely brief period when I gave a crap about music.”

Like I said – a LOT of boxes.

It helps that it is incredibly earnest and packed with charm, driven by a lead performance from Beanie Feldstein that is yet another indicator of just how sincerely talented she is as an actor. It might get a little shaggy and ring overly familiar at times, but the quality of work put forth by everyone involved pushes it beyond mere formula. It is genuine and disarming and unabashed – a story of the difference between becoming the person you think you want to be and the person you’re actually meant to be.

Johanna Morrigan (Feldstein) is a 16-year-old girl living with her family in Wolverhampton, England. Her dad Pat (Paddy Considine, TV’s “The Outsider”) is a failed musician-turned-illicit dog breeder. Her mom Angie (Sarah Solemani, “Greed”) is struggling with post-partum depression following the birth of twin boys.

She’s an odd duck, a dreamer whose brimming-over creativity is both a blessing and a curse. She’s the subject of teasing and bullying at school, but she’s also prone to imaginary conversations with the literary and ideological heroes whose pictures adorn her bedroom wall – a bedroom that is actually half of a poorly-divided space that she shares with her brother Krissi (Laurie Kynaston, “Nocturnal”).

Johanna’s desire to be a writer gets off to a rough start following a disastrous local television performance. However, when her brother points her to an ad from the music magazine D&ME looking for rock critics, she takes a swing, albeit with a painfully naïve review of the soundtrack to “Annie.” Faced with the dudebro music snobbery of the magazine’s staff, she quickly pivots, reinventing herself as the flamboyant and idiosyncratic Dolly Wilde.

Her initial work – including her first-ever interview, an assignment to speak to pop singer John Kite (Alfie Allen, “Jojo Rabbit”) – is positive, but she soon realizes that to truly make a name for herself, she needs to shift. And shift she does, quickly making a name for herself with a serious of cutting and savagely funny reviews of acts large and small. As her fame grows, so too does her ego, causing a steadily-building rift between herself and those closest to her. And when that ego leads her to go too far, it remains to be seen whether she can find a way to pick up the pieces.

The most obvious parallel to “How to Build a Girl” is something like “Almost Famous.” Both are based on true stories, with a precocious young protagonist venturing into a world that is both adult-oriented and developmentally arrested, all in pursuit of personal expression. We watch a kid navigate a journey from bright-eyed naivete to jaded cynicism as they are forced to confront the consequences of their editorial choices, all while exploring the existential overlap between creator and critic.

But that comparison, while apt, doesn’t tell the whole story. The gender reversal results in a much different conversation, but only on one side. See, even though Johanna/Dolly is a woman, the vast majority of the acts that she sees and the people she works alongside are men – and we’re allowed to see how problematic that dynamic can be.

What sets “How to Build a Girl” apart is its storytelling flexibility. While much of the film exists in a sort of heightened realism, we also have some more magical interludes – specifically, when Johanna is engaging with her wall of heroes, played by an unexpectedly stacked collection of performers. We’re talking Michael Sheen as Sigmund Freud, Jameela Jamil as Cleopatra, Lily Allen as Liz Taylor, Gemma Arterton as Maria von Trapp – like I said, it’s a hell of a list.

Of course, the bedrock of this movie – the reason it succeeds far more than it fails – is Feldstein’s performance. There’s a remarkable lightness to her, a bubbling effervescence that is simply captivating. Sure, her accent is a bit tough and she’s a little too old for the part, but those are ultimately minor quibbles. Feldstein INHABITS Johanna, bringing the character to life with both subtlety and breadth. The rest of the ensemble provides some solid support – Solemani is sadly compelling, while Considine, Allen and Kynaston all have shining moments – but there’s no denying that this movie completely and utterly belongs to Feldstein.

“How to Build a Girl” is a sharply sweet story, one that uses the true-life trappings of its heroine to say something about the ways we define ourselves. It’s a love letter to the music scene of the early ‘90s while also being a timeless take on what it means to be a critic. It is funny and poignant, offering plenty of cringeworthy moments and even eliciting a few tears. It’s about growing up in a place you can’t wait to leave, only to discover that you’ll always carry it with you. And when in doubt, speak your truth – that’s when you’ll really be saying something.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Sunday, 10 May 2020 09:22

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