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TIFF Review: ‘How to Build a Girl’ is an Endearing But Clumsy Teen Comedy

Photo Courtesy Toronto International Film Festival

How to Build a Girl is so endearing that it’s hard to complain about. This is a movie with nothing but the best intentions, and an entire ensemble giving it their all. But for all its pleasant moments this is a bumpy ride, and one that is always held back from achieving its total potential.

Beanie Feldstein continues her well-paced domination of the comedy genre as Johanna Morigan, a British teenager from a working class family who dreams of achieving success as a writer but can’t seem to find the best path to success. After her attempt at being a poet turns into a well-publicized disaster, she decides to turn her attention to the world of music criticism. Before long, her unconventional writing style lands her a job at a popular music magazine and she’s covering some of London’s most popular bands, including a cute and moody rock star named John Kite (Alfie Allen).

But, according to her fellow writers, there’s a problem: Johanna is too nice. She’s accused of writing reviews that sound like pages from a teen girl’s diary, and becomes the subject of mockery in the all-male writers room. Desperate to fit in and get her reviews published without a problem, she creates a new persona: Dolly Wilde, who dons a top hat, has bright red hair, makes bold fashion choices, and is absolutely brutal in every review. Soon, she develops a sort of cult status in the music community, with some loving her bold reviews and others cursing her out at any chance. But, in this newfound notoriety, Joanna starts to wonder if she’s losing her real identity by becoming Dolly.

The main message behind the film is timely and easy to root for. As a culture, we’ve started to ask who gets to decide which pieces of art carry value. How to Build a Girl shows what happens when a group of straight white men control the conversation around the music industry, gatekeeping the writer’s room and preventing artists who appeal to other demographics from gaining the same sense of legitimacy that their favorite musicians are afforded by default. Johanna’s early reviews exhibit a sense of passion that the other writers don’t have, and we see how she loses her genuine love for music by molding herself after the people who mock her. While How to Build a Girl is a period piece inspired by a true story, it still feels timely and could have been set in modern times without feeling out of place.

And there’s a lot to like about the film outside of its message! Feldstein is hugely charismatic and funny, overcoming a disastrous accent in the process. Feldstein has already played two iconic teen characters, the fact that she’s able to play a third teen character and make each feel distinct is the sign of a great actress. Allen is also incredibly charming as her quasi-love interest, believably playing a late ’80s rock star and forging a distinct difference between the character’s public and private life. Relative newcomer Laurie Kynaston  emerges as someone to keep an eye on, playing Johanna’s brother, a quiet gay teen who uses rock music as a means of escape. There are also fun cameos from a variety of stars, including Michael Sheen, Sharon Horgan, and Emma Thompson.

It’s just that the film sometimes feels like a rough draft, with so many ideas that are thrown into the mix but constantly bump into one another and throw off the pacing. The film employs a variety of different fantasy sequences throughout, but each one feels like something from a different movie. One is a shockingly explicit montage of sex scenes that feels like something from a sex-positive American Pie remake. A recurring bit finds Joanna consulting a variety of inspirational figures from the past who appear as imaginary friends of sorts, which feels like a joke from a more family-friendly affair.

Many supporting characters, and even Joanna, act like normal human beings throughout the film, only for them to suddenly embrace the sort of quirky, Sundance comedy behavioral tropes that were in vogue 15 years ago. And in one particularly cringe-y scene, Johanna turns to break the fourth wall to uncomfortably drive home the point of a scene that was already established minutes ago. It’s this lack of a distinct personality that keeps the film at a distance. Just when you start to love one thing about it, you run the risk of never having another scene like that again.

But to call anything bad in this film feels overdramatic — except for maybe Feldstein’s accent. These different styles and personalities never really mesh into a totally effective movie, but each of them work on some level on their own. The film is consistently charming and well-paced, ending at just the right moment before it gets too long. One story beat near the end feels a tad bit too dark when compared to everything that came before, but it’s only a minor bump before the film returns to its more entertaining ways.

So, How to Build a Girl finds itself in that awkward predicament that true stories sometimes find themselves in after making it to the big screen. There’s a world where this film could have been something of a teen staple. Instead, it’s just a solid teen comedy. And it just doesn’t really make sense to complain about being just a decent movie.

Matt Taylor
Matt Taylor
Matt Taylor is the TV editor at The Pop Break, along with being one of the site's awards show experts. When he's not at the nearest movie theater, he can be found bingeing the latest Netflix series, listening to synth pop, or updating his Oscar predictions. A Rutgers grad, he also works in academic publishing. Follow him on Twitter @MattNotMatthew1.


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