How to Build a Girl is … a lot. You have American actress Beanie Feldstein doing a Midlands accent with her Manic Panic red curls spilling out of a top hat, all while talking to pictures of Sigmund Freud, Jo March, and Donna Summer — who talk back. It’s not subtle, but How to Build a Girl shouldn’t be a quiet movie; it’s as loud and full of life as its central character, which screenwriter Caitlin Moran adapted from her autobiographical novel based on her own wild experiences as a teen in ‘90s-era Britain.
Feldstein’s Johanna Morrigan is just 16 years old when she submits a review of the 1982 Annie soundtrack to rock rag D&ME on a whim. The unpopular teen doesn’t know much about music, but she’s sure that she wants to be a writer, and she needs to find a way to support her down-on-their-luck family in Wolverhampton, England. The staff of the London-based music mag is charmed by her writing and surprised by her age and lack of experience, but Johanna still scores a freelance gig reviewing shows and eventually interviewing stars like the beguiling frontman John Kite (Alfie Allen).
Johanna reinvents herself as bon vivant Dolly Wilde, trading in her brown hair for flaming red curls, fresh face for cat-eye flicks, and standard teen girl wardrobe for outlandish costumes that cause her beloved brother Krissi (Laurie Kynaston) to liken her to the Child Catcher. Her enthusiasm is infectious, but Johanna learns early on from her critic — and critical — colleagues that nastiness sells subscriptions more than adoration, and her biting wit soon makes her a favorite for her tear-downs of everyone who’s anyone on the British rock scene.
While How to Build a Girl is about the value of earnestness and being who you really are, it’s also a sincere film itself, where passion for music, books, and films and loyalty to the people you love reign supreme. There’s an obvious throughline with Almost Famous (2000) in both its subject and themes, but this is something entirely different — and not just because the lead character holds lengthy conversations with pictures of long-dead and fictional characters adorning her bedroom walls (though that does help). Director Coky Giedroyc has worked in television since making two of her own films in the ‘90s, but this doesn’t feel like a movie directed by someone who hasn’t made a feature in decades. Her directorial style and stamp are clear in every frame and musical moment, with energy and joy vibrating out of the screen from the minute Elastica’s “Connection” opens the movie.
Though Giedroyc’s film is a lot, it’s also somehow not enough. It skips over details that would help us love Johanna even more, like why her initial musical knowledge seems limited to Annie and disco, when her confidante Krissi obsesses over his record collection and her musician father (Paddy Considine) never got over his own brush with rock stardom. How to Build a Girl might take for granted how much we know about Johanna, whose real-life counterpart Caitlin Moran is more famous in her native U.K. than she is in the U.S., but there are gaps here that are only filled by Feldstein’s winning performance.
Despite its flaws, Giedroyc and Moran have crafted a fun and funny little film, and this comedy doesn’t mind a little sweetness. How to Build a Girl finishes with a direct-to-camera monologue from its heroine, which somehow feels both out of place within the film’s structure and in line with its spirit. It goes out on a high note that makes it hard not to raise a triumphant fist in the air, just like you would at a particularly good concert.
“How to Build a Girl” is out Friday on VOD.