Movie Guru: Beanie Feldstein can’t save a poor script in ‘How to Build a Girl’
Wish fulfillment may be fun to experience, but it’s not enough to make a memorable story.
That’s the problem with “How to Build a Girl,” which has been released on streaming platforms and cable video on demand. The movie is pure modern fairytale, granting its protagonist her heart’s desire without worrying about things like good character development or problems that take more than a few minutes to overcome.
Beanie Feldstein is absolutely charming in the lead role, and with a better script this could have been a coming-of-age movie for the ages. As it is, though, you’ll forget almost everything about it the moment it ends.
Based on the novel of the same name, the movie focuses on 16-year-old Johana Morrigan (Feldstein). She dreams of a more interesting life, stumbling into it when she finds herself writing reviews of bands for a local music magazine. When she loses her job because an interview was too starry-eyed, she follows a co-worker’s advice and starts writing vicious reviews the audience eats up. When her new attitude starts affecting her family and friends, however, Johana finds out whether her new crowd is as faithful as her old one.
The story follows some of the same loose outline as the author (and co-scriptwriter’s) younger years, and it’s easy to detect the sweet haze of nostalgia all over the plot. This is what life looks like when you’re re-telling it at a party, with complex motivations swept aside and forgiveness for even the greatest sins won in an eyeblink. While it’s true those stories are fun to listen to at the time, they usually start falling apart as soon as you start thinking about them at all. It’s very “Almost Famous,” for those who’ve seen that movie.
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The fact that this one holds together as well as it does is entirely due to Feldstein. Critics who think they’re charmed with the movie are usually just charmed with her, and her performance here deserves it. She’s always the most interesting thing on screen, whether she’s the brightly innocent ingénue at the beginning of the movie or later brazenly charging into disaster on the strength of her own momentum. Her enthusiasm is infectious, the sassy confidence she takes on later a delight to watch.
Feldstein also does everything she can to bring some depth and believability to the movie. Her performance is what makes Johana’s arc coherent, always imbuing her actions with an edge of emotion believable for the impulsive, starry-eyed teen she is. Yes, she makes some terrible choices, but in the heat of the moment, you can almost see why she makes them.
Sadly, the script doesn’t do much to back her up. We never really get to see what drives Johana beyond her understandable but generic dream for something interesting to happen, and the movie doesn’t even explore that very much. We love characters for the pain they’ve overcome, but we never get to see much of Johana’s pain or the effort it took to overcome it.
Admittedly, Feldstein does a lot. But when it comes to building this particular girl, she needed more help to finish the job.
How to Build a Girl
Rated R for sexual content, language throughout and some teen drinking
Screenplay by Caitlin Moran
Based on the novel by Caitlin Moran
Directed by Coky Giedroyc
Starring Beanie Feldstein, Alfie Allen, Frank Dillane, Paddy Considine, Gemma Arterton, Michael Sheen, Emma Thompson and more
Grade: Two stars
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.