Movie Review: How to Build a Girl (2019)

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Even before sixteen-year-old Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein) grabbed a box of red hair dye so bright it could be seen from space in order to reinvent herself as firebrand rock critic Dolly Wilde, she was the very definition of "extra" and proud of it. In fact, as we learn at the start of How to Build a Girl, the precociously bright Wolverhampton girl seemed to operate under the assumption that you should never do less when more is available.

Turning in thirty-three page essays in place of the five required by her assignment, Johanna not only didn't know when to say when but long before she started spending her time going to rock clubs, carousing, and writing all night before she woke up minutes later for school, she loved to burn the candle at both ends.

Indulging in rich fantastical conversations with figures like Sylvia Plath (Lucy Punch) and Sigmund Freud (Michael Sheen) who come to life on her "God Wall" partition that splits the room she shares with her loyal brother Krissi (Laurie Kynaston) right down the middle, when her piece on the Annie soundtrack gets her foot in the door at a local newspaper, Johanna breaks the damn thing down.

Invited there as part of a bet because nobody could believe that someone would write with such earnest passion about a children's musical, after an imaginary pep talk from Bjork, Johanna sets out to prove to her new colleagues, family, and classmates that instead of the nerdy girl with glasses who lives in her head, she is an iconoclastic early ‘90s woman of action.

Given additional courage, thanks to a nine pound makeover with hair dye, dark second hand clothes (including a top hat which will become her signature), and that new wild pseudonym Dolly Wilde, in How to Build a Girl, Johanna Morrigan makes good on her name and forgets who she truly is in the process.

Knowing that cynicism and snark sells and eager to provide for her cash-strapped family, she goes from writing sweet, sensitive pieces about music and the artists she loves (including Alfie Allen's dreamy John Kite) to take down hits that earn her the "Asshole of the Year Award" before reality and remorse catches up with her.

A shallow yet deeply cynical film masquerading as a tender coming-of-age story based on the semiautobiographical novel by Caitlin Moran and adapted by the author, though it has everything in the world going for it, How to Build a Girl is as authentic as a box of hair dye and as in flux as our leading lady when it comes to its sudden lurches in rhythm and tone.

Tenuous and inconsistent, although it takes a cue from Britcoms like the Bridget Jones series (which has producers in common with this one) in its initial set-up, the movie from acclaimed, award-winning small screen director Coky Giedroyc has as many walls up as Johanna has "gods" on that partition in Wolverhampton.

Unwilling to delve beyond the surface of our lead character's ever-changing facade, for a majority of the first act, we're asked to laugh at Johanna rather than with her. And though a top-notch Feldstein is the highlight of the picture, Girl only endears Johanna to us in a gorgeous sequence when she spends a romantic day in Dublin with Allen and lets down her guard to show both him and us who she really is. Unfortunately, the effect is short-lived, as just like Wilde, the movie seesaws so quickly and so improbably that — rather than a realistic portrait of Johanna's struggle to find herself during adolescence — it feels like a bad cliché at the expense of teenage girls as opposed to in celebration of them.

Never seeing the forest for the trees, How to Build a Girl focuses so intently on individual moments — and with its first rate cast and amazing soundtrack it does land some great ones — that it doesn't bother to question whether it flows organically from one scene to the next. And this problem is magnified tenfold by the film's end, which wraps everything up in a thoroughly unearned bow, mere minutes after the increasingly dark film finds Johanna hitting a dangerous rock bottom in a sequence that comes out of nowhere and is cheapened by a jolt of humor, which is sure to confuse young girls who might be watching.

An all-around misfire that should've been right up my alley as a precocious young nerd who tried to grow up too quickly in her '90s teen years and join the writing world as well, perhaps one of the reasons I was so utterly disappointed by Girl is because I went in assuming I'd see, if not me than others I could relate to, and left shaking my head at just how many opportunities were missed. From randy colleagues who proposition her with come-ons and casual sexual harassment — resulting in one very funny scene when Johanna sits on a man's lap and gives him the opposite of what he wanted — to becoming the morally torn breadwinner of her family, there were endless areas that the film could've planted a flag in and explored.

More like playing a rock critic for Halloween than shadowing a real one for a day, while it's one thing to barely touch on what life is like as a professional writer, the thing I can't forgive is that it does the same thing for the teenage girls it's purporting to salute. Going for more, more, more, just like Johanna even before she went Wilde, eventually we realize that the more Moran and Giedroyc throw onto the the pile, the less we care about the girl who should be so much more interesting than those fire engine red roots which ultimately serve as a placeholder for a personality and a character in search of a film.

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