To be fair, a realistic movie about writing would be tedious and frustrating. It’s a solitary activity, and a sedentary one, and not very cinematic. And any lightning bolts of inspiration that may have electrified a writer when they first came up with an idea have generally fizzled into mild, masochistic shocks by the time they’re midway through the second draft. So movies about writers focus on the trappings of the work rather than the discipline itself, which has the side effect of making writing look both magical and effortless. How To Build A Girl has the frustrating part down, but not because of realism.
Beanie Feldstein, usually cast as a supporting player, takes the lead here as Johanna Morrigan, a working-class 16-year-old growing up in nowheresville, England (a.k.a. Wolverhampton, West Midlands) in the ’90s. Johanna is frustrated by the lack of romance and adventure in her life, but all that changes when she falls face-first into a gig writing for what’s presumably supposed to be NME. Her spec essay about the musical Annie was funny, but embarrassingly dorky, she’s told by a room full of gatekeeping hipster dudes—but, at least in this film, that’s nothing that unshakeable self-esteem and a heartfelt speech can’t fix. After being given an assignment on the strength of said speech, Johanna reinvents herself as the red-haired, sexually adventurous, witheringly witty music journalist Dolly Wilde. The act delights everyone, from her posh colleagues to sensitive singer-songwriter John Kite (Alfie Allen, making his family proud with quite capable vocals), with whom she spends a magical day in Dublin, developing a devastatingly intense crush.
Feldstein is as contagiously ebullient as always in the role, and her English accent is mostly passable, although it breaks down at times during the voiceovers that bookend the film. But her character’s actions keep chipping away at the actor’s natural charisma. It’s not that Johanna is naive, selfish, and cruel; she’s a teenager, that’s to be expected. It’s that the film spins pure fantasy out of rewarding and reinforcing these character traits, to the point where How To Build A Girl—with its colorful cinematography, quirky supporting characters, and clever asides to the camera—feels like a Hollywood musical without the music. (There’s less music than you might think for a movie about a rock critic.) It’s maddening from a narrative perspective, because if Johanna’s story is supposed to be a fairy tale, that’s not communicated strongly or consistently enough.
There are elements of magical realism. Take Johanna’s wall of literary heroes, each played by a British celebrity—GBBO’s Sue and Mel as the Brontë sisters, Gemma Arterton as Maria von Trapp, Allen’s sister Lily as Elizabeth Taylor—and all of whom come to life when she’s having a crisis. But as the story goes on, these fantastical touches are sidelined in favor of real-world lessons on the futility of snark and the importance of being oneself for oneself. There’s some valuable wisdom in there, particularly for young women trying to make their way in a male-dominated profession. But these grounded morals are smuggled into a storyline that’s so completely divorced from reality that the end result is more confusing than inspiring.
How To Build A Girl is based on screenwriter Caitlin Moran’s semi-autobiographical novel, and one can’t help but think that she added another layer of gauze to the story in adapting it for the screen. But to what end? Sure, not every coming-of-age story has to be traumatic. But just one scene where Johanna/Dolly is rejected for reasons other than an editor being a sexist, ageist meanie, or just one of the many musicians she insults in print refusing to accept an apology, would have been beneficial—for dramatic purposes, if nothing else. If this is what being a writer really was like back then—pay good enough to support an entire family, more than enough assignments to go around, screaming fans begging for autographs—the ’90s truly were a different time.