The coming-of-age story is a familiar one in film, but rarely does the protagonist go through as many incarnations as Johanna Morrigan does in “How to Build a Girl.” The new movie from IFC Films, which is directed by Coky Giedroyc with a screenplay by Caitlin Moran adapted from her novel of the same name, is set against the backdrop of the 90s rock music scene, and is alternately sweet and charming and raunchy and cynical.
At the start of the story, Johanna (played by Beanie Feldstein) is a 16-year-old living with her large working-class family in Wolverhampton. Her dad, Pat (Paddy Considine) is an out of work former musician still trying to break into the industry; her mom, Angie (Sarah Solemani) is suffering from post-natal depression after unexpectedly giving birth to twins. Johanna is a talented writer but lacks confidence and isn’t popular in school. After bombing a poetry reading on live TV, she submits a quirky music review to a pretentious, male-dominated indie rock publication. Initially shunned, she realizes that she has to take charge to get what she wants, and reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde, a tough music critic with a flashy wardrobe, an adventurous attitude, and a hunger for fame and fortune. But as Dolly’s star rises, she becomes hated among fans of the musicians she pans in her articles, and Johanna starts to wonder if this is the kind of girl she wants to be after all.
Moran’s story is semi-autobiographical, and her authenticity and sharp sense of humor frequently shine through. She imbues Johanna with an admirable does of wit and spirit, but also enough vulnerability to make her relatable. This all comes through in Feldstein’s enchanting performance. She masterfully handles each transition Johanna makes in the film. Feldstein is in every scene of the movie, and you truly believe the journey Johanna has just gone on and the growth she has experienced as she tries to find herself by the conclusion of the story. Another notable member of the cast is Alfie Allen, who plays musician John Kite. Johanna is sent to Dublin to review John’s gig early in her journalism career, and the pair develop an immediate bond. The role of indie rock musician suits Allen, and he and Feldstein work well together, somehow turning a relationship that on paper seems like the stuff of fantasy (dreamy star and starry-eyed teen) feel genuine. The cast also includes small appearances by Chris O’Dowd and Emma Thompson, and Laurie Kynaston has a crucial supporting role as Johanna’s brother Krissi, whose close relationship with his sister changes as she further takes on the persona of Dolly Wilde.
“How to Build a Girl” boasts some clever touches, among them having the posters and portraits of Johanna’s muses hanging on her bedroom wall (Maria from “The Sound of Music,” the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Taylor, Sigmund Freud, and more) come to life to converse with and encourage her, a la the paintings in “Harry Potter.” There’s also a palpable energy to the concert scenes, due at least in part to the musicians playing live on set.
Each time Johanna reinvents herself, the tone of the film shifts along with her. In theory, this sounds like a great idea, but in practice, the tonal shifts are too drastic for the film to successfully pull off. This is particularly true toward the end of the movie, when we go from a pessimistic and borderline surreal series of sequences involving Dolly Wilde (who by the end is almost larger than life) to a sobering incident to a rather clichéd sweet and hopeful conclusion that ties up everything a little too nicely. Even the start of the film begins as a series of embarrassing and lightly comedic incidents for Johanna at home and school before rushing into the headiness of the music scene.
However, the film does make sure to make time to show how the changes in Johanna’s career also change the rest of her life, from the way she is viewed by her teachers and peers at school to the way she interacts with her parents and siblings as she becomes the major breadwinner in the household. It’s these scenes that keep the film grounded in reality even when the rest of Johanna/Dolly’s life doesn’t seem real. And the importance of having an all-female writing, directing, and producing team exploring this time in the life of a girl approaching womanhood cannot be overstated. “How to Build a Girl” won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but its edginess and earnestness will strike a chord with young audiences searching for their own sense of self.
“How to Build a Girl” is now playing in select drive-in theaters and is available on demand on the following platforms: Comcast Xfinity, Spectrum (Charter, Time Warner, Brighthouse), Verizon Fios, Altice (Optimum), Cox, DirecTV, AT&T, Bend Broadband, Buckeye, Guadalupe Valley, Hotwire Communications, Metrocast, Suddenlink, WOW Internet Cable, RCN, Midcontinent Communications, iTunes, Amazon, GooglePlay, YouTube, Vudu, PlayStation, and Xbox. Runtime: 102 minutes. Rated R.
3.5 out of 5 stars.
Media review link courtesy of IFC Films.