How to Build a Girl feels like watching an entire TV series in fast-forward. The character arcs and development may make sense in real-time, but as movie, we watch a shy and awkward 16-year-old turn into a completely different person in less time than a montage would take. Perhaps if the film actually took place over a longer period of time, it would only be an issue of poor screenplay adaptation and sloppy editing, but since she remains 16 for the entirety, there is also the unsavory inclusion of her explicit sexual awakening with older men. However progressively feminist the narrative may be, there is nothing particularly enjoyable about watching an underage girl allow herself to be exploited in a misguided pursuit of liberation.
While the coming-of-age sexual discovery is not the entire film, it often overshadows the much more enjoyable primary storyline, despite it essentially just resembling a female Almost Famous. Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein) lives in the working-class town of Wolverhampton in England, longing for more from her life. Having grown up watching her father (Paddy Considine) talk about his dreams of being a successful jazz drummer while doing little to achieve it, Johanna takes her future and dreams into her own hands. After walking into the office of a weekly rock magazine and demanding a chance, Johanna proves her abilities as a writer with a few music reviews. She finds her limitations as a critic when discovering that her positive outlook and ability to find pleasure in most things is not appreciated.
In a bid for another shot at being a critic, Johanna reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde, a critic that hates and demolishes everything she writes about. Johanna’s meteoric rise with success is presented alongside her social blossoming, using the confidence of minor fame to drink and have sex indiscriminately, boasting about her multiple exploits in detail to her brother. Given the fact that her success is financial as well as social, Johanna’s contributions to the family bills (and her father’s floundering music career) give her added impunity. Inevitably, there comes a point when Johanna will have a life lesson allowing us to forgive the transgressions, but even this doesn’t seem to be enough to make the sexual exploration sequences/descriptions less creepy.
Perhaps this questionable area of the narrative adapted from Caitlin Moran’s semi-autobiographical novel remains because Moran was the one to write the adaptation. I imagine it is difficult to remove elements of one’s own journey, even if they may make for unsavory viewing. That may also be the reason for the casting of Feldstein, who is much too old for the role, as well as being a California-native with dialect difficulties to prove it. Having already seen Feldstein in a similarly blunt character in Booksmart, perhaps the hope was that audiences would be primed for explicit sexual discussion from the actress. The problem isn’t each scene, but rather the poor pacing and improbable progression from one scene to the next.
The Blu-ray release includes a handful of extras, including featurettes and interviews with key cast/crew members. The interviews show the personal attachment many have to the narrative, though that isn’t always enough for a film to be good.
Entertainment Value: 6/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 5.5/10
Historical Significance: 3/10
Special Features: 2/10