Coming-of-age stories tend to be sweet meditations on the ups-and-downs of being a teenager, filled with discoveries and some regrets, but ultimately with hope of a bright future for the protagonist. How to Build a Girl is your typical coming-of-age movie in many ways, but it also deviates from the formula significantly.
Johanna (Beanie Feldstein) is a 16-year-old girl with a colorful imagination and big ideas she can’t seem to envision happening due to her coming from a poor family. Her dad (Paddy Considine) is a failed musician, her mom (Sarah Solemani) has postpartum depression after giving birth to twins, and she shares a room with her brother (Laurie Kynaston).
The one thing she has going for her is her ability to write, something that eventually lands her a gig with a music magazine. Problem is, her sunny outlook doesn’t exactly jibe with the rough and tumble boys’ club, so she transforms herself into Dolly Wilde, a pink-haired, leather-clad bad-ass with a poison pen.
Set in the early 1990s and based on the semi-autobiographical book of the same name by screenwriter Caitlin Moran, the film has the vibe of Almost Famous but goes to some darker places. Instead of being the innocent among the wolves, Johanna’s alter ego becomes a wolf, going down a rabbit hole of meanness that brings her success but at the cost of her true essence.
Moran and director Coky Giedroyc build up a colorful world for Johanna, including a vision board on which various people and characters like Sigmund Freud (Michael Sheen), Jo March (Sharon Horgan), and Elizabeth Taylor (Lily Allen) speak to her in times of need. Johanna often marches to the beat of her own drum, and it’s when she goes against the norm that she becomes the most interesting.
The only problem with her having an active fantasy life is that it can sometimes be difficult to tell when things are actually happening or if they’re all in her head. A lot of crazy things start happening when Johanna/Dolly turns to the dark side of criticism, but it’s never completely clear if she’s truly experiencing those things or if they’re all in her head.
Feldstein, who made big strides with her parts in Lady Bird and Booksmart, is as winning as ever here. It is a bit jarring to hear her speak with a very specific British accent, but in the end she’s just as convincing as the actual British actors in the film. Considine, just by pure screen time, makes the most impact among the supporting actors, but Alfie Allen is charming as John Kite, a musician who sparks joy for Johanna.
How to Build a Girl goes to some unexpected places, but ultimately winds up in a similar spot as many coming-of-age movies that have come before. It’s a great showcase for Feldstein’s talent, but needed a bit more originality to have it truly stand out.