How to Build a Girl Review: Feldstein is stellar in this strong, but overly familiar coming of age story
Female coming of age stories are booming in this new generation of filmmaking and the newest film from director Coky Giedroyc, How to Build a Girl, mostly finds a way a to standout as it tells the story of a girl finding her own way in the world.
Based on the novel of the same by Caitlin Moran, who also wrote the screenplay for the film, the film follows Johanna (Beanie Feldstein) – a nerdy and lonely high school student eager to breakout and discover new facets of life. However, she doesn’t come from much as her family is poverty-stricken and she doesn’t have many, or really any, friends of her own. Eventually, Johanna decides its time to make a drastic change in her life by changing her look, her name, and overall outlook on life and assumes the new identity of Dolly Wilde. As she takes on a job as a music critic, Johanna begins to see the life she’s dreamed of and see the benefits and consequences of this reinvention of herself.
Ever since seeing her absolutely kill it alongside Kaitlyn Dever in Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, I’ve been eagerly anticipating what Feldstein would do next and she doesn’t disappoint here. She’s easily the greatest part of How to Build a Girl as she makes Johanna a very relatable and elevates all of the growth and reinventing she goes through. When Johanna initially creates her alter ego in Dolly Wilde, it actually feels like a distinct change has been made. She’s much more demanding of what she wants, her confidence and cockiness rises, and she comes off much more ambitious and personable with people around her.
Feldstein especially shines in making the sexual desires and more mature elements of Johanna’s new lifestyle very intriguing and it’s nice to have a story where her feminine desires are authentic and unfiltered. Her ambitions to be cool and have high notoriety obviously lead her down some bad paths and make her easily influenced by the wrong people at times, but it all comes off as parts of her journey that make the end more satisfying. The final moments of Johanna realizing who she really is and wants to be comes with a heavy heart in how hard things hit, but also is uplifting in how things wrap up because of how strong Johanna’s relationships are.
There’s a lot of great chemistry between Feldstein and the entire cast and the relationships that Johanna, her family, and a musician she falls for named John Kite (Alfie Allen) are very strong. Her father’s (Paddy Considine) love of music and solid support of being by her side, even for his own self-interests at times, leads to some fun moments and one heart-breaking one when Johanna’s attempts to get his music heard falls totally flat. The friendship and feelings she develops for Kite are also very endearing and the way that they find similarities in their life stories is really sweet and adds a lot of relatable depth to their characters. Allen also puts in a really strong performance and even though he’s not in the film much, he makes a lasting impact and has a strong resolution with Johanna that’s realistic and full of meaning. There’s also a really strong moment with her mom (Cleo) that comes at a pivotal moment, since she’s going through postpartum and doesn’t say much for most of the movie, that connects them in a way that’s very touching.
Frankly, it’s great that these characters are so strong and interesting throughout the film, because they’re required to do a lot of heavy-lifting for the engaging style and storytelling this film lacks at times. While the idea of Johanna getting advice from well known figures, like Jo March (Sharon Hogan) and Elizabeth Taylor (Lily Allen), on her Wall of Fame, it’s not played with enough and is one of the many familiar beats this film goes through. Johanna’s whole story can feel like a best hits of coming of age films with how her rise and fall affects her mindset and her relationships with everyone around her. The only thing that makes it kind of unique is the world of critique she ends up in and how the film portrays the ethics, or lack thereof, of the profession. In some ways, the way someone critiques something says a lot about them and the ethics and intentions they have in what they’re critiquing. The film does a great job utilizing this aspect of Johanna’s life-changing reinvention and connecting to her arc about figuring out who she is. Outside of that though, the film just comes off a little too familiar and carries this monotone tone that makes the first act of this film feel slow and kind of boring.
Even for its familiarity, How to Build a Girl is another strong entry in the ever-growing female coming of age genre and is elevated through dominant performances – especially from Feldstein and Allen. The film definitely falls into some traps in becoming another inspiring coming of age story, but mostly rises above it to make it a standout in a very crowded genre.