Coky Giedroyc's How to Build a Girl Manages to Entertain Despite Predictable Plot

Beanie Feldstein as "Johanna Morrigan" and Cast in Coky Giedroyc's HOW TO BUILD A GIRL. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release

Cody Giedroyc's How to Build a Girl centers one teenage girl's elusive search for fame, popularity, and significance. Based on Caitlin Moran's semi-autobiographical novel of the same name (Moran also wrote the screenplay), viewers follow 16-year-old Johanna Morrigan through the ups and downs of her short-lived career as Dolly Wilde, rock critic. While there's no shortage of films about teens trying to reinvent themselves into a better, shiner version, Beanie Feldstein's (Booksmart) charismatic performance as the lead, for the most part, keeps How to Build a Girl from feeling recycled.

Johanna Morrigan, a bright and imaginative teenager growing up in the Midlands of England in 1993, spends most of her time writing long papers for school, journaling, and interacting with her God Wall. Isolated and bullied by her peers, Johanna dreams of romance, adventure, and lots of sex, but her social status prohibits any such benefits. After a humiliating moment on live television, Johanna's much cooler brother, Krissi, (Laurie Kynaston; "Cradle to Grave") suggest she apply for a writing job as a music critic. Though the staff initially laughs off her application (her writing sample sings the praises of the Annie soundtrack), her writing skills and enthusiasm land her the job.

But in order to reinvent herself as Dolly Wilde, rock critic extraordinaire, Johanna knows she needs to adapt. Her new look and positive nature, paired with a lifetime of honed writing skills, allow her to rise in the ranks and finally become popular. As Johanna gains in confidence, her wide-eyed enthusiasm and sense of childlike wonder conform to the "dog eat dog" mentality of someone willing to do anything to be the best. Johanna will have to decide if this girl she has built, Dolly Wilde, is the person she wants to be. 

Beanie Feldstein as "Johanna Morrigan" in Coky Giedroyc's HOW TO BUILD A GIRL. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

Beanie Feldstein carries this film with her spunky attitude and pluck. After her award-winning performance as Molly in Booksmart, who better to play a lovable nerd with a lot of inner sass? The camera loves her, and with such an expressive face, we as viewers fall in love with her, too, even as she makes poor choices and begins to step on the people she loves. Johanna's angst-ridden rush to create her new iconic look is one of the most entertaining sections of the movie, with her God Wall heroes cheering her on, Cleopatra providing eyeliner advice.

About the God Wall: Where some teens might hang posters of their favorite bands, Johanna's wall is covered with portraits of her favorite heroes from literature and history: Jo March, Sylvia Plath, Maria von Trapp, Sigmund Freud, Cleopatra, and the Bronte sisters are just some of the VIPs who claim a spot. The other catch – Johanna's active imagination allows these heroes talk to her, acting as cheerleaders and confidantes. Such a clever plot device allows viewers to enjoy the antics of some of Britain's most contemporary celebrities without adding extra bulk to the story. Jameela Jamile, Michael Sheen, Lucy Punch, Lilly Allen, Sue Perkins, and Mel Giedroyc are some of the people that appear on the God Wall. And Patsy Ferran (credited as Snow Pixie) appears later in a public restroom as a Bjork-esque sage when Beanie needs a pep talk the most.

Alfie Allen as "John Kite" in Coky Giedroyc's HOW TO BUILD A GIRL. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release

One more performance deserves attention: Alfie Allen plays John Kite, a swoon-worthy musician Johanna interviews and who just might be her soul mate. Allen, who most viewers may know as Iosef Tarasov, the man who killed John Wick's dog, apparently makes just as good a romantic hero as he does a sniveling Russian weakling. Allen and Feldstein's on-screen chemistry feels on par with the pairing of Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star is Born (2018), although this pair spends far less time on screen together. As John Kite pulls Dolly Wilde onto stage for his performance after spending a whirlwind day together, their eye contact and happiness at being together melted this viewer's heart.

Setting the film during the 1990s rock scene offered a fresh outlook and allowed for ample name-dropping as Johanna/Dolly reviews music by different bands. The Hallows, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, and House of Pain are all roasted in Dolly's reviews. To create an authentic soundtrack for the movie, casting specialist Jo Farrugia traveled through the Midlands scouting for bands emulating the 1990s sound.

To be sure, the movie has its flaws. One trope that should die is the nerdy character who has no life and only hangs out at the library. Guess what? People who read and learn things are interesting and fun as heck at parties. Seeing yet another movie that paints the library as the place where lost souls live pathetic lives of boredom is enough to make this viewer emit the ultimate mom sigh.

Laurie Kynaston as "Krissi Morrigan" and Beanie Feldstein as "Johanna Morrigan" in Coky Giedroyc's HOW TO BUILD A GIRL. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release. 

Another lost opportunity: Johanna's parents, played by Paddy Considine (The Half Life of Timofey Berezin) and Sarah Solemani (Bridget Jones's Baby), were dreadfully underused. Johanna's family provided the perfect setup for extra doses of humor. Father Pat Morrigan is a retired rock drummer who still fancies himself capable of having the great comeback, while Mother Angie Morrigan suffers from postpartum depression after giving birth to twins. Such seasoned actors could surely have harvested the setup to reap some great on-screen moments, but with so little time given towards the family dynamics, they are never allowed to rise above the role of caricature.

All in all, How to Build a Girl manages to entertain and keep audiences invested in Johanna's arc. While the film never rises above level of average, Beanie Feldstein's performance, her chemistry with Alfie Allen, and the 1990s setting all combine to create an entertaining film that will resonate with today's teens, as well as many parents.

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Final score: 3.5 out of 5