How To Build A Girl (2020) Review

It’s simple. I see Beanie Feldstein, I watch.

I pretty much knew nothing about this film besides that fact that Beanie was in it and that adorable poster of her in the top hat. That was more than enough to sell me and it was exactly what I signed up for.

How To Build A Girl explores the life of Johanna Morrigan (later referred to as Dolly Wilde, her bad girl persona), a seemingly ordinary yet precocious girl whose talents and intelligence deem her worth more than the circumstances she was born under. After a disastrous TV appearance inadvertently pushes her family into poverty, Johanna attempts to make it as a rock music critic. This new career path sends her on a wild adventure of self-discovery and realisations about the world she lives in.

I truly wish I had gotten to see this in the cinema. It’s a great time, filled with wit and a view of life from all angles as Johanna’s journey becomes more and more complicated the more her personality adapts to the cruelty of the world around her. Caitlin Moran and John Niven’s screenplay based on Moran’s best-selling novel of the same name is packed with charm that is only bolstered by Beanie Feldstein’s dazzling performance. The script itself is paced gorgeously, with every up or down coming at exactly the right time with a memorable cast of characters to accompany it.

The story follows Johanna with all of her adorable teenage whimsy that might seem lifted straight out of a fairytale, but as the film progresses her family is given more and more depth to root the film in authenticity, as an anchor for the moments that are larger-than-life. Her mother’s depression, her father’s failed dreams, and her brother’s understated inferiority that only worsens when Johanna’s star rises. Admittedly a few of the other characters, such as the distasteful men Johanna works with at the magazine with, could have been more fleshed out, but there’s enough character work to carry the film along to its conclusion.

Feldstein is an obvious draw, coming off the back of her Golden Globe-nominated turn in Booksmart, and at first it might seem that she’s playing the same role once again (as well as the endearing Julie from Lady Bird) but Johanna/Dolly is imbued with so much life and energy that she feels completely separate from anything Feldstein has done before. Julie and Molly were great characters, but Johanna feels like Feldstein tapping into something new; something that teeters on the edge of her wheelhouse. First of all, she’s adopting a British accent for the film (and one of the tougher dialects at that) and she does so very well. Aside from a few moments I noticed, there aren’t really any slips to the accent performance which is commendable. Her persona Dolly is also a little bit darker and more cynical than anything I’ve seen Feldstein do before, at least during her downward spiral. Johanna is bubbly and effervescent, but Dolly is emblematic of Johanna’s desperation and her need to feel appreciated and be a little more daring. By the third act, Feldstein was balancing drama and comedy effortlessly, some of the film’s most memorable scenes come from her doing both at the same time.

Despite this being Feldstein’s show primarily, the supporting cast put in some great work too. Alfie Allen embodies a magnetism that I’d never seen before from him and Frank Dillane possesses his usual asshole energy once again. In the best way.

Despite some lovely character work and great humour, How To Build a Girl still feels quite surface-level in what it is exploring. The ending packs a powerful yet predictable punch, while the whole adventure feels like something I’ve seen before. For a movie centred around a truly unique protagonist, the film doesn’t support those fantastical ambitions and prevents it from embodying her style in its direction. Aside from the charming real-life portraits on Johanna’s wall (shoutout to Sharon Horgan as Jo March), the movie doesn’t real try to be daring in the way that Dolly is.

While it does suffer from some obvious flaws from its adaptation, How To Build a Girl is a fun movie-watching experience that highlights the compelling screen presence of its star, Beanie Feldstein. And plus, we can never have enough female-directed movies about exploring its women in great detail. With a little more boldness behind the camera, this film could have been something quite special, but I’ll settle for a great time with a fun lead performance any day if Beanie continues to perform at this level.

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