Friday, May 8, 2020

'How To Build A Girl': Some Parts Are Better Than Others

The 90's were a wild time, kids.

Let me get something straight right off the bat: I adore Beanie Feldstein. I've loved her in everything I've seen her in, especially in last year's woefully overlooked Booksmart, one of my favorite films of 2019. If I know she's going to be in something, I will see that something eagerly. So, I would tell anyone who adores her as much as I do, yes. See How to Build a Girl.

That said, and it utterly pains me to admit it, she's just not right for the movie.

And the thing is, so much of her is right: Her physicality. Her lack of vanity. The glee that seems to exude from her pores. Her comedic timing. Her utter relatability.

But Johanna Morrigan, the girl of the title, is both 16 and British, two things 26-year-old Feldstein is not. And while she does a fairly good job pulling off the 16-year-old aspect, she fails at the accent, which is a particularly tricky "Black Country" lilt. I knew she wasn't getting it right when I could understand everything she was saying, but was wishing for subtitles from much of the rest of the cast. It's a huge distraction.

And oh, that's such a disappointment, because this is a movie every girl or woman who has ever fallen hard for rock and roll could love. Set in the early 1990's Johanna is the only girl in a family with three sons, two of whom are late in life twins, whose arrival has sent Johanna's mother (Sarah Solemani) into a funk. Johanna feels like an outcast, searching for her calling, using her wall of inspiration as a guide. (These photos of her cultural heroes, which include Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Taylor, and Sigmund Freud, come to life and are played by the likes of Lucy Punch, Lily Allen, and Michael Sheen.)

After a humiliating appearance on a local TV show ends up costing her father (Paddy Considine) his border collie breeding business, Johanna answers a job notice from a NME-type magazine looking for writers, and sends in a tongue-in-cheek review of the soundtrack to Annie. When she shows up at the offices, proving she's real and not someone's idea of a joke, she convinces them to let her review a concert. And with that, she finds her calling.

Settling in to her new life as a music journalist results in a few personality changes, and Johanna becomes Dolly Wilde, merciless critic and wild child, a character who is neither charitable nor kind, but certainly gets her noticed. She makes an indelible mark in a field dominated by sexist fan boys.

Caitlin Moran wrote the screenplay, based on her semi-biographical novel of the same name, and the way the film has to speed through Johanna's story makes it hard to get ones bearings. I was surprised to learn that what I had assumed was a few years ends up being merely months. I almost wish How to Build a Girl was a series and not a film. Perhaps then Johanna's multiple personality changes would feel a little more consequential.

And, again, while Feldstein may not master that accent, and my annoyance with it took me out of the film more than once, I still enjoyed watching a story about a teenage girl doing things teenage girls often dream about doing, but rarely get to see themselves doing in the stories they watch.

How to Build a Girl is now available to rent on most VOD platforms.

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