“However awful it is on earth, if you go high enough it’s always summer.”
That’s Johanna Morrigan’s grand revelation after her first-ever plane ride at age 16, but the same sort of optimism also applies to Beanie Feldstein, the actress behind Johanna’s bubbly persona. No matter how down you may feel, a healthy dose of Feldstein’s undying charm will have you good as new.
That charisma is on full display in “How to Build a Girl,” where Feldstein and Co. deliver an earnest and deeply human coming of age comedy.
Stuck living a humdrum life in the dreary town of Wolverhampton, Johanna longs to break free from the depressingly small and overcrowded flat she shares with her parents and four brothers. Johanna wants to live – explore the world, go on adventures and, most importantly, have sex – but she knows none of that will happen as long as she’s trapped at home.
After finessing her way into a gig reviewing rock and roll for a local newspaper, Johanna decides to reinvent herself as Dolly Wilde. At first, Dolly is a wide-eyed and impassioned reporter, but after learning those stories don’t sell nearly as well, she pivots into becoming a ruthless, impossible-to-please and incredibly horny critic who’s drunk on power and fame. But with her transformation comes fractured relationships, leaving Dolly – and what’s left of Johanna – to pick up the pieces in an attempt to determine who she really wants to be.
Make no mistake: Feldstein is this movie’s greatest strength. To be honest, she’s the only reason I made the choice to check it out in the first place. After stealing scenes in “Lady Bird” and earning critical acclaim for her leading role in “Booksmart,” audiences were well aware of Feldstein’s wit and humor. In “How to Build a Girl,” though, it’s her heart that shows off. While there are plenty of Feldstein’s snarky jokes to go around, her candid and wholesome side is on display as she learns to put her desires first and be true to herself.
Without Feldstein’s charm to help carry it, the film would struggle a bit. After all, it’s a coming of age story, and like most, it falls into a few genre pitfalls – the obligatory transformation montage, the falling out, or the third-act revelation, to name a few.
But “How to Build a Girl” puts its own spin on the formula, due in large part to its reliance on the surreal. Part coming of age movie and part fantasy, Johanna oftentimes finds herself talking to photos on the wall (think Harry Potter’s moving portraits), living out fantastical visions, or directly addressing the camera. Some of these twists work better than others – the photos allow for some fun moments – but the narration often feels out of place.
Across from Feldstein, Alfie Allen shows off an incredible new side of himself. Best known for his often despicable “Game of Thrones” character, or maybe as the thug from “John Wick,” here Allen is tender and open. As John Kite, an indie-rock singer, he plays Johanna’s first-ever interview, and the two quickly hit it off as he opens her eyes to the music industry. Together, Allen and Feldstein have unexpectedly dazzling chemistry leading to some truly adorable banter.
While it sometimes struggles to balance its tone – switching between heartfelt, vicious, raunchy and inspiring all in a matter of minutes – Feldstein’s impressive ability to perfectly match whatever is thrown her way makes “How to Build a Girl” worth the watch.
Star Rating: 3.5 out of 5
“How to Build a Girl” is available on-demand via Amazon, Apple and other streaming services beginning May 8.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.