This post contains minor plot spoilers and is based on a screening of How to Build a Girl at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. No release date is set.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and How to Build a Girl’s 16-year-old protagonist Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein) is no exception. Swept up into the world of rock music criticism, Johanna transforms herself from a painfully romantic sixth-form wallflower into an outrageously popular music scene mainstay known for her biting reviews. Unpopular, bored and longing for a great big life full of adventure, Johanna is a mousy teenager who writes poetry about her dog in her spare time. Endlessly melodramatic and romantic to the point of distraction, Johanna talks like she’s just stepped out of a Bronte novel, often directly to the photos of a litany of historic and literary icons on her bedroom wall (played by some of Britain’s best) who speak right back to offer advice and consolation.
Writing under the name Dolly Wilde and wearing an outrageous ringleader costume to match, Johanna ingratiates herself to the local music scene with sincere abandon until an interaction with singer/songwriter John Kite Blackwood—played in all his dreamy glory by Alfie Allen—sets her on a path of pissy bitterness. (Fresh off Game of Thrones, Allen’s Blackwood is romantic and swoony and exactly the kind of figure that a teen girl would pin her heart to.) Her new dangerous attitude alienates her family, the bands she covers, and eventually the staff at the magazine until she’s forced to come to terms with the woman she’s becoming and set herself right again.
Based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by British journalist Caitlin Moran, How to Build a Girl is a sweet film about an adventure to create oneself in all the ways that matter. Feldstein’s Johanna is young and yearning, far from the daring exploits she seeks but determined to create them anyway. Feldstein plays her with a barely-quieted brilliance. After her turns in both Lady Bird and Booksmart, Feldstein has clearly found the sweet spot of nerdy teen girlhood. Johanna is a little odd and tends to catastrophize (as teens are wont to do), but when she blossoms, it happens in all facets of her life.
Slightly neglected in a working class family full of boys, Johanna is desperate for a little attention. She feels alienated from her mother and invisible at school. After a series of minor embarrassments, she submits an earnest and funny review of “Tomorrow” from the musical Annie as her sample for a “hip young gunslingers” ad for music magazine D&ME. When the all-male staff waves her off, she insists on being given a chance to show her mettle and worms her way into her first assignment.
The best part of Feldstein’s performance is that Johanna feels extremely lived-in as a teen. Despite spending most of her time around grown men who keep her around out of amusement, she is still smart, engaging and sincere. She is entirely self-possessed and brings her whole heart to every interaction, challenging their cynical dismissal of the things that other people love. But as a teen, Johanna is desperate to be liked, so her sharp turn to invective masking as critique happens easily when her colleagues demand it. The way to build a girl isn’t by breaking her down, but by allowing her to find different paths to building herself in the best way she knows how.