“HOW TO BUILD A GIRL” Photo | Film4
The writer Caitlin Moran is funny and audacious and so is her semi-autobiographical book “How to Build a Girl,” so I was excited for the film version starring Beanie Feldstein (“Booksmart”). But Moran, who wrote the script, doesn’t seem to know how to build a movie out of her book, because something was lost in translation. While there were plenty of winning, amusing moments, the character arc was so simplistic and naive that, as much as I wanted to, I could not believe in the story. And I loved the book, it was set in the music world of the ’90s and Jo March from “Little Women” has a cameo.
Feldstein plays Johanna Morrigan, a super nerdy, literature-obsessed high school student. She lives in a depressing British suburb with her family, who are wonderful and the best part of the film. Paddy Considine plays her father, a failed musician who is unusually sympathetic to frustrated artistic ambitions, while her mother, juggling her unplanned newborn twins, is exhausted and keenly aware of life’s possibilities to disappoint. Johanna’s best friend is her delightful gay brother, with whom she shares a tiny paritioned room and a typewriter.
With a wall covered in photos of her literary idols, who, in a whimsical touch, talk to her, Johanna’s problems aren’t with her supportive family, but with the harsh world outside the thin walls of her home. After a truly mortifying televised reading of one of her poems, Johanna finds an opportunity to write music reviews for a music magazine. The unintended humor of her review of the “Annie” soundtrack gets her a foot in the door of the male-centric publication, and then she makes a rather meteoric and totally unrealistic rise in the ranks.
Her first reinvention sees her dying her long hair magenta and raiding a thrift store for a rock ‘n’ roll get-up centered around a tailcoat that her brother says makes her look like the Child Catcher from “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Soon, she is interviewing a rather winsome musician, played by Alfie Allen (“Game of Thrones” ), but her swooningly positive review of him bombs with her editors and leads her to toughen up and adopt the persona of Dolly Wilde, a cutting, clever, cruel critic.
It’s very hard for me not to love a character who describes herself as “on the move like Aslan,” but the plot surrounding that character was just too simplistic. It was a story about a teenage girl that seemed like it was written by a teenage girl. Johanna rises too easily, falls too easily and fixes her mistakes too easily. And Feldstein’s British accent was iffy at times. The icing on the unrealistic cake for me was the final scene in which Johanna addresses the camera and — quite unnecessarily — sums up the message of the film for us, incorporating the title for extra emphasis.
I just don’t understand the lack of restraint in the portrayal of Johanna. She was plenty sympathetic and then some, and even her “flaws” were the stuff of fantasy. If the goal was to show us a teenage girl through the eyes of a teenage girl, and that was why it was so unbelievable, there should have been some lens through which we could understand this. It did not come across as a tender look back at a youthful time; it just came across as naive — not a naive character but a naive film. There were some good elements in “How to Build A Girl,” but the final product was ultimately unsatisfying and amateurish.
“How to Build a Girl” is available to stream.
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The Pop-Up Movie Tour is coming to Hank Aaron Stadium May 22-31. This drive-in event will include screenings such as “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “Knives Out,” but Mobile’s exact schedule is yet to be announced. Tickets are sold per vehicle and social distancing is enforced. Visit driveindudes.com for details.
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