How to Build a Girl

Sixteen year-old Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein, "Booksmart") wants to be a writer, but tells us she is not a typical heroine because she isn’t a tragic orphan, instead saddled with four brothers, overwhelmed mom Angie (Sarah Solemani, "Greed," "Bridget Jones's Baby") and Australian shepherd breeding dad Pat (Paddy Considine).  Prone to embarrassing episodes, she outdoes herself with TV host Alan ‘Wilko’ Wilkinson (Chris O'Dowd) reading a poem for a Midlands contest before riffing on Scooby Doo.  The brother who shares her room, Krissi (Laurie Kynaston), tosses her an ad looking for a rock critic to get her out of her funk in “How to Build a Girl.”

Laura's Review: C-

I’ve never heard of it, but according to press notes Caitlin Moran’s novel, which she’s adapted for the screen here, is wildly popular in the UK.  I wonder why that is, because as directed by Coky Giedroyc (TV's 'Harlots'), “How to Build a Girl” is the worst kind of wish fulfillment fantasy, one in which the unethical ambition, spite and betrayal of a sixteen year-old social misfit are repaid with the adoration of a rock star because the screenwriter deems it so, laying the sins of the daughter at the feet of an overburdened mother.  Feldstein does surprisingly well with the accent, but she’s been directed to act like the Energizer Bunny, speaking so quickly her presence is grating, at least when she’s not obviously posing for puppy dog effect.

The basic idea is that Johanna reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde, a magenta haired, top-hatted rock critic who is advised by Tony Rich (Frank Dillane, AMC's 'Fear the Walking Dead') that success in their work comes from tearing down most so that few rise to the top.  When she writes a hit piece on John Kite (Alfie Allen, HBO's 'Game of Thrones'), a famous friend, because of a gentle rejection, she sees what she’s become and tears herself down to begin again.  In Moran’s world, that is quickly followed by Kite’s renewed admiration and a job at a real paper, as we all know happens in the real world.

That job is handed over with whip lashing speed by Emma Thompson, one of the many celebrities who troop through this project for reasons unknown.  In an overused device, Johanna’s bedroom wall is covered with pictures of those she idolizes (Maria von Trapp, Sigmund Freud, Elizabeth Taylor, Sylvia Plath, etc.) who spring to life (as played by Gemma Arterton, Michael Sheen, Lily Allen, Lucy Punch, etc.).  Thank goodness for a few adults in the room, Considine’s overgrown adolescent charming (dad, once an aspiring musician, gets brutal treatment from his daughter), Solemani getting the best lines and Joanna Scanlan grounding as teacher Mrs. Belling.

Feldstein has proven her talents elsewhere, so it is disturbing she only gets two good laughs to play here (her rock trial piece is written on ‘Tomorrow’ from ‘Annie’ and she returns from an early gig in Dublin with a ‘proper pint’ in a paper bag for dad).  Otherwise, watching her in “How to Build a Girl” is like nails on a chalkboard.

Robin's Review: C

Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein) is a happy go lucky teenager who is also the picked on one at school. Her unemployed dad is a failed rocker and her mom in a constant state of post-partum depression. She seizes a chance to be a rock critic for a music mag and, to her surprise, gets the gig in “How to Build a Girl.”

I became a bit skeptical about what was about to transpire when the title comes up, “Based on a truish story.” Then we me meet the bright and bubbly Johanna who seems to have her act together. We find out, though, that she is the butt of ridicule at school and bullied. Then, beyond hope, she lands the writing job. Johanna is transformed.

She, with the fiscal help (nine pounds and change) from her brother, Krissi (Laurie Kynaston), sets out to reinvent herself and, clothed in top hat and tails, becomes Dolly Wilde, music critic extraordinaire. From here, the story adapted by Caitlin Moran from her autobiographical novel, How to Build a Girl is about Dolly’s rise to fame and fortune until the rug gets pulled out from under her.

At its heart, “How to Build a Girl” is a femme teen fairy tale that, somehow, does not seem to have anything in common with actual teenagers. The fairy tale, though, turns dark as Johanna becomes convinced that she is an unstoppable, necessary force in her chosen profession. The character goes from the above mentioned bright and bubbly to a selfish, self-possessed young woman who sheds all her decency for fame and fortune.

My problem with “How to Build a Girl” is mainly because of its star. I never ‘like” Johanna from the beginning as the nicer teen to later when her true colors emerge and she pushes away all who care about her. There is something about the character that feels shallow when she should be sympathetic. It is telling when the supporting cast, like Paddy Considine as her dad and Sarah Solemani as her mom, garner more sympathy than the lead.

Though I call this a teen fairy tale, I do not see where “How to Build a Girl” will attract the audience it should – teenagers.