There is something unsettling that takes place throughout the running time of “How to Build a Girl.” The movie, which stars Beanie Feldstein, is full of golden little moments, great bits of humor, and a wonderful lead performance. It is also overly slow and far too easy, a disappointment despite the good moments. It is only as the movie is wrapping up that the answer becomes clear – the interesting movie isn’t the one we are shown, it is the one that begins just as the credits are about to roll.
Written by Caitlin Moran and directed by Coky Giedroyć, “How to Build a Girl” is a coming of age story with Feldstein as Johanna Morrigan, a 16-year-old girl without a room of her own who imagines that the pictures of icons on her wall (mostly women) come to life and guide her forward. Inanimate objects talking and offering advice may not be new, but Giedroyć carries it—as well as the rest of Johanna’s imagination—off with such wonderful whimsy that it feels like a fresh idea. Seeing other moments within Johanna’s imagination where one impossible thing or another happens, “How to Build a Girl” proves it can be an undeniably smart film which puts a smile on one’s face even in the saddest of moments.
Regrettably, these moments of brilliance are too few and far between. The way in which the rest of the movie plays out is much more mundane… even if the specifics of what is happening are not.
The next paragraph is going to have spoilers about what happens in the movie. This is necessary because the specifics of the plot are why the movie doesn’t work.
Johanna, a would-be writer, becomes a full-fledged one early on in this movie, churning out music articles for a music magazine and loving life until she gets the opportunity to do her first feature piece and interviews rock star John Kite (Alfie Allen). She has a great time, turns in a sappy piece, and is summarily dismissed because she wrote it like she was a 16-year-old girl. The key, she learns, is to be a horrible person, to hate nearly everyone and almost everything, to act above it all and cut down those whom she is featuring. She embraces the idea, become a huge success, and before the credits roll realizes how wrong she was.
Now, if that all sounds like a nice and short summary of the whole movie, something where it doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to move from one idea to the next, the trouble with “How to Build a Girl” is that it functions in roughly the same fashion. Johanna might struggle for five minutes after her dismissal, but she’s taken back into the fold with ease. She may struggle for a moment when she has to re-right herself near the end of the film so that she can be triumphant, but that’s not all that difficult either.
Johanna jumps from moment to moment, one build of her life to the next. Eventually the movie gets around to offering its thesis—you build yourself, see what works and what doesn’t, tear yourself down and build again, you do it over and over until you have it right—and this notion that Johanna keeps rebuilding herself would seem to fit with that thesis except that it’s all too easy. The struggles are all too quickly overcome. It’s all too obvious and straightforward and dull. Those moments of brilliance, of things like Johanna bringing pictures to life within her imagination, are too few and far between. “How to Build a Girl” almost feels as though it revels in the moments where Johanna is at her most wretched, perhaps because Feldstein is so very good in them.
And that is true – Feldstein is so very good in the moments where she gets to give a big, boisterous performance. She is, however, also excellent in the smaller, quieter, sadder moments. The pictures coming to life doesn’t just work as a concept because it’s fun, it works because of the way Feldstein is able to sell it, interacting with that which we know isn’t real for Johanna… with that which even Johanna knows isn’t real. There is something less movie trailer-ready about those moments but they work better in the movie.
“How to Build a Girl” is a movie that is at its best when it stays small, it is the story of Johanna and her brother (Laurie Kynaston) and her father (Paddy Considine) and her mother (Sarah Solemani) which is most interesting, but with which the film too regularly feels the least concerned. The big story, the one about Johanna’s successes as her rock critic alter ego, Dolly Wilde, are flash and excitement and ultimately empty. The relationships (save, perhaps, the one with John Kite) are two-dimensional and irrelevant.
Starting wonderfully, “How to Build a Girl” also ends wonderfully, with a moment of self-realization and a question about what’s next. It is there where the film gets interesting, where Johanna gains the insight necessary to understand what is going on. It is no stretch to believe that it is there where Feldstein would shine even more brightly. It is a pity we don’t know what happens next.
photo credit: IFC Films