If you’ve seen Booksmart or Neighbors 2, you know that actress Beanie Feldstein has no problem stealing the show, and now she gets to shine center stage with Coky Giedroyc‘s delightful adaptation of Caitlin Moran‘s novel How to Build a Girl. The coming-of-age story is a terrific lens in how teenagers work to build an identity and how that identity has to be constantly rebuilt and torn down to find some semblance of honesty, which is tough when your desires and your truths easily conflict with each other. Although the role has comic beats, Feldstein excels at playing the breadth and depth of a young woman cycling through identities and attitudes to find her voice. While there are times where the film can be a bit too cutesy or too direct with its audience, at its best How to Build a Girlfeels like Almost Famous melded with a thoughtful look at gender dynamics and finding adulation at a young age.
Set in a small British suburb in the mid-90s, How to Build a Girl follows Johanna Morrigan (Feldstein), a talented young writer looking for adventure and companionship with her closest friends being photos of the intellectuals, heroines, and novelists who adorn her bedroom wall. When her attempts to write honestly get her nothing more than a pat on the head for her good writing, Johanna reinvents herself as crimson-haired firebrand rock critic Dolly Wilde for her local music publication. However, her rock appreciation doesn’t sell as well as a venomous pen, so Johanna has to reinvent herself again when she determines that, “A nice girl gets nowhere, but a bitch can make a comeback.” Through these various identity shifts, Johanna’s true relationships are strained and tested as the sixteen-year-old tries to figure out who she is and who she wants to be.
Even though the film takes place in the world of rock journalism, Giedroyc plays it fairly sweet and pleasant, allowing Feldstein’s performance to dictate the film’s emotional beats because she knows we’re going to be fully invested in this character. Despite her nerdy-to-cool transformation, Johanna never plays like an archetype, and the film is always at its strongest when it sticks to the emotional realities of a young woman discovering popularity, glamour, sexuality, and her voice, but struggling to work out what’s really her and what other people just want to hear. How to Build a Girl wisely notes that a young woman in the public sphere doesn’t have the benefit of a being a private writer, and so image and voice are inexorably intertwined. Johanna has all the writing talent in the world, but to get people’s attention, she has to become Dolly Wilde, and even that turns out not to be enough.
This could all be rather heavy and overwrought, but Giedroyc uses a light tough and has the benefit of an immensely talented cast that includes Paddy Considine as Johanna’s father and Alfie Allen as an alluring young rocker that makes Johanna swoon. But at the core of the film, you’ve got Feldstein holding everything together, and never needing to play it broad like Neighbors 2 even though How to Train a Girl knows when to be comic. Instead, the strength of her performance comes from vulnerability because the whole character is wrestling with the truth of her identity. Coming-of-age movies can be tough for actors, but Feldstein owns the role completely so that even when Johanna is at her cruelest, she retains our empathy.
Despite some occasional false notes (no one has ever chastened a group of jerks with a self-righteous speech), How to Build a Girl is a lovely and sweet movie that proves to be a welcome reprieve from these trying times. The movie offers another sterling performance from Feldstein’s young filmography and makes its mark on the coming-of-age genre by wrestling with concepts of identity for young women who want to be true to themselves and yet inhabit worlds that give them narrow lanes in which to maneuver. Despite the heavy subtext, How to Build a Girl is a delightful and effervescent picture that will considerably brighten your mood.