Director Coky Giedroyc returns to the big screen with How to Build A Girl, a film based on Caitlin Moran’s bestselling autobiography of the same name. It follows Johanna (Beanie Feldstein) — Moran’s self-insert — a teen prodigy writer who gets hired by a music magazine and rises up the ranks. Johanna lives in Wolverhampton with her parents (wonderfully portrayed by Paddy Considine and Sarah Solemani) and three siblings. Breeding collies in their home, Johanna’s dad has dreams of musical success, and her mom is so exhausted that she barely interacts with her. The chaos of Johanna’s home life inspires vivid daydreams where she regularly communes with the likes of Frida Kahlo, Jo March, and Jane Austen — each woman being among others that make up her iconic historical entourage. Johanna’s greatest asset is her writing, yet she stumbles with how to channel it.
Her luck changes when she lands a gig as a music reviewer for a magazine and is quickly swept up by her new lifestyle: staying out late, attending gigs, and socializing with industry buffs and rockstars. How To Build A Girl inserts itself within the canon of coming-of-age films where the protagonist, usually bookish and friendless, seeks self-actualization in womanhood — to Johanna, that means becoming a successful writer, being financially independent, and maybe snapping up a boyfriend along the way. This story is a fictionalized version of Caitlin Moran’s own start in journalism, becoming a critic at Melody Makers when she just was 16 years old.
Feldstein is a strong performer, but the writing limits her to a rather flat portrayal of Johanna, and the mere decision to cast her, an American, to speak with a Wolverhampton accent was one of the film’s biggest flaws. Johanna’s narration drives a lot of the plot and weaves a great deal of the thematic threads in the film, but her delivery is shaky, often breaking the flow of the moment.
The characterization of Johanna also seems to struggle as the plot develops, with her arc of personal growth undermined by the time the film concludes. How to Build a Girl looks at teen girlhood without shame: Johanna is a teenager who menstruates, masturbates, engages in casual sex, and occasionally has depressive episodes. The general weightlessness of the film’s tone is owed to the lack of judgment placed on its protagonist; however, whether these arbitrary snapshots of realism are enough to ground her character is up for debate.
Despite some compelling performances and a few good jokes, How to Build a Girl is ultimately let down by its narrative scope. Johanna’s portrayal inevitably becomes a dichotomous series of cringeworthy and ‘inspiring’ moments with very little in between. Her characterization resists significant growth, and the concluding message of the film doesn’t appear to ask her to adapt, learn, or grow, but instead to love herself no matter what — although unfortunately, I’m left unconvinced.