ST. LOUIS — Human beings compose themselves of certain parts that should be only recognizable or identifiable to their own DNA. Borrowing pieces from another human results in self-sabotage, betrayal, and overall disappointment. The kind of dismay that likens itself to turning down a road that wasn't paved for you.
Cody Giedroyc's "How to Build A Girl," based on a best-selling novel from Caitlin Moran (who adapted her own book for the film thankfully) was released today on Amazon Prime and demands your attention. A story of a 16-year-old girl (Beanie Feldstein) who is smarter than most of her high school classmates yet also stands apart from them far too often. An old soul stuck in a girl's body, Johanna Morrigan paints her walls with the heroes of classic poetry and literature like Jo March and Karl Marx. To her, words are the fuel that life runs on, so when an opportunity to review music for a popular town newspaper comes up, she jumps at it.
This is easily Feldstein's breakout role. She's terrific and owns the screen. While she was brilliant in last year's "Booksmart" and the Oscar-nominated "Lady Bird," this movie sits on her shoulders, making or breaking on her performance. She doesn't disappoint. It's not hard to know what Johanna is all about, but Feldstein makes her wholly authentic and realized. You feel her pain and root for her, but also avert your eyes when she transforms herself into the cutthroat and overly blunt Dolly Wilde.
The persona allows her some quick over-month fame, ripping apart new bands and comparing Eddie Vedder's Pearl Jam to a Nirvana knockoff. Someone that a character refers to later in the film as "an Olympic swimmer in a bathtub." But it also costs her vital things, like the trust of a musician she befriended (Alfie Allen) and some harsh love from her family, such as her rocker wannabe dad (a sublime Paddy Considine). This is where a young woman has to figure out who she is and how she wants to be that person. At one point, a fellow journalist asks her, "Fan of hack: you need to choose?"
Giedroyc's film, and Moran's story, doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel of how to tell a coming-of-age tale. But it sure does supply viewers with a highly entertaining and endearing wheel to look at. You slowly fall in love with the story of a smart and too wise for her years woman who tries out self-transformation in exchange for popularity, but doesn't find what she's looking for. I liked the grass roots approach used here and the supporting cast is wickedly on point.
In addition to Considine, I really got a kick out of Allen. Known as either the prodigal Greyjoy who took his time returning or the guy who pulled John Wick out of retirement, here he gets to supply viewers with the down-to-earth artist who befriends Dolly yet finds his way quickly to Johanna. I loved their scenes together because the actors didn't overreach or push too hard on the words, instead allowing Moran's power to speak for itself and their portrayals to do the rest of the heavy lifting.
This is like the punk rock female-empowered version of "Almost Famous," but with more humor and a welcomed British paint job. There's also Feldstein, who quickly took my money at the poker table here, playing someone both relatable and pulled from the pages of a classic book. She's hilarious, honest, and honestly exciting in this role. You want to be her but more importantly, you want to be friends with her Johanna.
More than anything, this is the feel-good film that 2020 needs, and one that can be enjoyed from home. It's a warm blanket of cinema, easy to wrap yourself up in and get comfortable with. The story endears as the cast really goes for every note of the script's ambition. A movie you may not have heard about but should be lucky to find for six dollars on a Friday night.
We all want to build ourselves out of authentic parts that only fit our souls, never kneeling down for extra attention or adoration if it means putting a false note in our blood stream. The idea is be yourself to the end, because most likely that person is the best version anyway.
"How to Build a Girl" taught me many things, but that one stands above the rest. Go ahead and watch it. See what it does for you inside two hours.
I think I'll watch it again for the part where Johanna/Dolly breaks down her teenage sex life in the most hilarious fashion.
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