How to Build a Girl movie review: instruction manual not included

part of my Directed by Women series
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How to Build a Girl green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

The hypocrisy of the world’s expectations of girls gets a gently sardonic knock via an audaciously confident young woman battling to be herself. This is a lovely, goofy movie, easygoing and chaotic.
I’m “biast” (pro): desperate for movies by and about girls and women; love Beanie Feldstein
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
female director, female screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

The title is… illuminating. And ironic. How to Build a Girl. We girls don’t have cultural scripts for building ourselves in the way that boys do, which come at boys from all angles: from pop culture, from sports, from history lessons in school, from everything that they see in the world that tells them that they can do whatever they want and all barriers they encounter can be surmounted. (Disclaimer: applies mostly only to straight white boys. And isn’t even really true! But still it gives them a confidence boost, and the arrogance to expect everything from the world, and that’s hugely important.)

How to Build a Girl Alfie Allen Beanie Feldstein
Every girl needs a manic pixie dream boy in her life…

Certainly movies have not had a lot of interest in letting teen girls be anything other than supporting characters in boys’ construction, in a filmdom dominated by male filmmakers telling stories from their perspectives. We’ve have a few good — really, really good — movies about teen girls recently. We’ve been allowed about one per year, and mostly they are tiny releases. You know: Arthouse. Niche. Have you seen 2019’s Hala, about a badass American Muslim teen girl? Of course you haven’t. There were no billboards for it, no TV ads in prime time. These movies might be allowed wide releases if they are about girls 150 years ago, like last year’s Little Women. Or, hey, there was also last year’s Booksmart! Ooo, we have two big movies about teenaged girls last year. Things are looking up.

And now we have How to Build a Girl, which would have been a small theatrical release if cinemas hadn’t been shuttered because of the coronavirus pandemic. This is not an arthouse film, however, except in that it is about that weird creature, a teenaged girl. Maybe now, with no other new movies to see, it can garner a significant audience on VOD among those desperate for new movies.

How to Build a Girl Beanie Feldstein
Johanna is her own manic pixie vampire chick…

I hope so. Because this is a lovely, goofy movie. It is easygoing, chaotic, and a bit all over the place, just like journalist, essayist, and professional messy girl Caitlin Moran, upon whose semiautobiographical novel this is based. (Moran also wrote the screenplay.) And it stars Booksmart’s Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising) again, who is a goddamn American national treasure, a sort of everygirl (or at least every-white-girl) who cheerfully embodies the audacious self-possession and conviction of a young woman who dares to be herself in the face of regular opposition telling her to shut and and pipe down, or if she must speak, please don’t be so much yourself.

Here, though, Feldstein’s Johanna Morrigan is British, not America; 16 years old in the early 1990s, not today; and less assured of a successful path in life until she, smart but underprivileged, finds her voice as a critic for a rock-music magazine. (Apparently some Brits feel that her Midlands accent — Johanna hails from Wolverhampton in the center of the country — isn’t great. It sounds okay to me, but perhaps my ear for English accents is not good enough to made a determination.) She even gets a bit of a manic pixie dream boy in Alfie Allen’s [Game of Thrones, The Predator] Irish folk-rock guy! (Honestly, was not expecting this was Alfie Allen… and I like it very much.) Everything else is much the same, though, as Johanna struggles to find a path that is honest to her own self even as it is often contrary to what the world says it wants from girls.

How to Build a Girl Emma Thompson Beanie Feldstein
Every girl needs Emma Thompson as a mentor…

Or does she? Find her voice, that is. For Johanna’s journey is one shaped by the cruelty of boys and men who run the field she has chosen to jump into, a cruelty that overtly states that it wants fresh new perspectives while sneakily molding them into more of the same-old, same-old. Johanna is absolutely desperate to be “cool,” and to be seen as being cool, and yet the narrowness of the definition of “cool” trips her up and fools her into thinking that conformity is where it’s at. (She doesn’t seem to realize that her dad, for instance — played by the always amazing Paddy Considine [Journeyman, Funny Cow] — a still-trying-to-make-it musician, is authentically cool.) She lurches through fits and starts of “coolness,” sometimes accidentally hitting on truly hip originality, but more often succumbing to the poseur pressure of others.

And she’s only 16! Johanna stumbles through an awful lot here — emphasis on the awful — as she discovers that the meanness that sells music magazines is antithetical to the irrepressible positive spirit of her personality. The hypocrisy of what the world expects of girls comes in for a gently sardonic knock: Look how the world tries to crush girls! Look how how tough it is to push back! Look how unforgiving the world is even when you give in to what it wants!

Wait, what? The impossibility of girls (and women) winning at life unless one embraces one’s own integrity and one’s own terms is, maybe, the prime lesson any girl looking to build her life can take from this terrific movie.

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