One of the reasons why Stand By Me is a stellar coming-of-age feature lies in its unabashed look at the less than sunner side of life. Beanie Feldstein’s high wattage smile dominates How to Build A Girl, but this movie goes beyond feel good tropes and simply delivers an unflinching and memorable tale.
Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein) is a 16-year-old high school student living with four brothers, an overworked mother (an understated but brilliant Sarah Solemani), and irresponsible father (Paddy Considine). Her heroes are not the working class folk or fellow classmates who live in early 1990s Wolverhamption; instead she idolizes Elizabeth Taylor (Lily Allen), Sylvia Plath (Lucy Punch), and Maria von Trapp (Gemma Arterton).
These figures adorn her wall in her cramped room, and since she is a gifted writer and avid reader, maybe the power of the pen will lead her to a seemingly unreachable level of greatness. With no high school friends to speak of and a disastrous debut on television (Chris O’Dowd is the host of a program that spotlights poetry), Johanna ultimately lands a job at a music magazine where she uses the moniker Dolly Wilde.
There was a time when a healthy amount freelance and staff writers could make a decent living at journalism, so watching Johanna earn her share of cash while penning music reviews and interviews is not a flight of fancy (yes, a long time ago journalists made substantial money!). Johanna gets the job by putting up a spirited fight and though she starts off the gig with the best intentions, a colleague’s advice that she uses her words for destruction sends her down a much darker path.
Alfie Allen (Game of Thrones) plays John Kite, an introspective rock star who immediately bonds with Johanna over a chat, and he becomes a bit of a mentor and friend to the starry eyed Johanna.
Directed by Coky Giedroyć and penned by Cailtin Moran (the script is based on her own novel), How to Build a Girl does get to a pretty predictable end for a coming-of-age tale, but in fairness the final moments are well earned. Johanna, for much of story, is an unlikable and at times vindictive person, and her efforts in getting a scandalous lead story is pretty reprehensible.
We are also witness to Johanna’s unabashed lusts as she beds several men and essentially plays the field. Though she’s just 16, she has an affair with someone in his early twenties (I’m guessing on his age), and while some viewers may be shocked at her delight in such sexual activities, kudos to the Giedroyc and Moran for giving us a fully realized human being.
Although I did not initially buy Beanie Feldstein with a British accent, that was generally due to her memorable work in Booksmart. As the movie progressed, my prejudice gradually faded away, and Feldstein simply knocked this role out of the park (the accent, from where I’m sitting, was on point).
Watching How to Build a Girl reminded me of my own horrible behavior as a teenager. Thankfully I had my share of mentors and friends to set me straight, and we’re assuming Johanna finds her way as well.
Blessed with a downright balls to the wall performance by Beanie Feldstein, an engaged ensemble, and a whip smart script from Moran, How to Build a Girl is an absolute winner. Dolly Wilde may be a rock star music critic, but it’s the ambitious and fearless visions of Johanna which keeps us going.
How to Build a Girl comes out May 8 via On Demand.