Most of us would be appalled to win a prize called “Asshole of the Year.” In general, no one wants to be that asshole. But in Coky Giedroyc’s acerbically funny adaptation of Caitlin Moran’s novel How to Build a Girl, rock scribe Johanna Morrican aka Dolly Wilde (Beanie Feldstein) accepts the dubious honor exultantly as a measure of her success. The bullied has become the bully and it feels good – a momentary rush inside the fantasy Johanna’s built for herself until stark reality intrudes in a comedy that tracks where one teenager’s inchoate ambition to be freed of her circumstances leads.
Feldstein, a scene stealer as the best friend in Lady Bird and one of the good girls who riotously let go in Olivia Wilde’s directing debut Booksmart, nails not just Johanna’s Wolverhampton accent but also her precociousness and her unhappiness. At school and around town, she is a target for abuse. At home, she has an ally in her brother Krissi (Laurie Kynaston), but her mother (Sarah Solemani) suffers from postpartum depression after giving birth to twin sons, and her father (Paddy Considine) is well-meaning but lives in the past of his ’70s rock musician glory days. Besides Krissi, her closest companions are the “gods” attached to her bedroom wall who come to life and commune with her in her imagination, a diverse collection of personal heroes that encompasses Elizabeth Taylor (Lily Allen), Sigmund Freud (Michael Sheen), Sylvia Plath (Lucy Punch), and more.
Johanna’s salvation – for that is how she sees it – comes in the form of an advert looking for rock critics. It is the pre-internet 1990s, but trolls are already in ascendance, not that Johanna recognizes the breed in the music tabloid’s editor and staff. She is not even a rock fan at first, but she is a quick study and a gifted writer. There are hiccups on her road to notoriety as Dolly Wilde, but once fellow critic Tony (Frank Dillane) explains that the whole point of the publication is to promote a very chosen few and denigrate the many, Johanna wholeheartedly embraces snark to stunning effect.
Only 16, Johanna is a work in progress readily adaptable to changing conditions. To interview for the job, she utterly transforms her look into that of a striking, dramatic redhead with a penchant for micro-minis. When mean-spiritedness makes her not only popular in school but also in the pop culture firmament and allows her to support her impoverished family with her earnings, she is all in with that persona. Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll become her lifestyle and her religion. It makes her the asshole of the year, not just to her readers, but to her family and to John Kite (Alfie Allen), a rock star who shows her genuine kindness and friendship.
The question that hovers over How to Build a Girl is just what kind of girl is Johanna building? She is at a pivotal moment in her life. As sweet Johanna is subsumed by boisterous, malicious Dolly, can that Johanna ever return? It is to the film’s credit that that question hovers unanswered for most of the movie. How to Build a Girl has been compared to Bridget Jones’s Diary, but other than being about two ambitious young women with jobs in the media, there are few similarities. Johanna is not seeking a Mr. Darcy to give her a fairytale ending and Bridget was old enough for her selfhood to be set, not necessarily the case with Johanna. Is she capable of more transformation or is she stuck at asshole of the year?
One question is settled by How to Build a Girl. What her previous movies and her triumph on Broadway as Minnie Fay in Hello, Dolly! suggested is made manifest here: Beanie Feldstein is a young woman who is going to have a monster career. She is a charming actor, but not one that needs to be liked, and she embodies the baser aspects of Johanna’s personality in those moments when the teenager is truly abhorrent. Yet, it is impossible to dislike Johanna for long, if only because she is so funny. Feldstein is the complete package, a gifted comic with a full emotional range at her disposal. Moran has written a witty, insightful adaptation of her own book and Giedroyc has made a delightful, well-cast, and resonant film, but How to Build a Girl film lives or dies on Feldstein’s performance. It lives. –Pam Grady
How to Build a Girl is available in select theaters and on demand.