For some reason, the world at large has yet to realize what a stunning talent Beanie Feldstein truly is; the 26 year old (and Jonah Hill’s younger sister) can sing, act and pretty much charm the wits off even the most cynical among us. Her scene stealing performance in Lady Bird (a difficult feat opposite the captivating Saoirse Ronan) put her on the map; she took a half-step towards center stage in Booksmart, sharing top billing with Kaitlyn Dever. Before she breaks out of high school roles once and for all (she has starring roles in both Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along and Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story: Monica Lewinsky lined up), Feldstein finally gets a film all to herself in How to Build a Girl, a wild coming-of-age ride that makes most teenage experiences pale in comparison.
Based on Caitlin Moran’s novel of the same name (which she adapted for the screen) and directed by Coky Giedroyc, How to Build a Girl claims to be based on the “true-ish” story of Moran’s own experiences as a writer in the early 1990s for a weekly music paper in England, a job she got when she was just 16. It’s not entirely clear how much of the story is based in fact, but it doesn’t really matter. As Johanna (and later Dolly Wilde), Feldstein is having so much fun figuring out who she is that we can’t help but be swept up in the adventure, too.
Living with her family (mom, dad, two brothers and a new set of twins) in a small house in a small town, Johanna is already sure she’ll be a writer someday; filled with optimism and a can-do spirit, she only sees the good in every person, situation and opportunity. She shares a room with her brother (and best friend) Krissi, and has an entire wall filled with photos of her heroes—and there’s not a heart throb among them. Instead, it’s the likes of Maria von Trapp (Gemma Arterton), Elizabeth Taylor (Lily Allen), Cleopatra (Jameela Jamil), Sigmund Freud (Michael Sheen) and the Brontë sisters (a delightful reunion of Great British Bake Off hosts Sue Perkins and Mel Gierdoyc, who is also the filmmaker’s sister) that not only decorate her room but populate her imagination as she consults them for advice and guidance. Johanna’s particular version of nerdiness is as endearing as it is familiar to any woman who was once an awkward, uncool teenager with nowhere to channel her offbeat interests and energy.
When Krissi discovers an opening for a music writer for “Disc & Music Echo” (or D&ME), Johanna decides to go for it, submitting a characteristically syrupy review of none other than Annie, cueing a montage to “Tomorrow.” To perhaps only her surprise, the guys at the publication (because it’s the ’90s and it’s all guys) don’t exactly fall for Johanna and her brand of enthusiasm; but even they can’t deny her determination, so when she shows up at the office to talk them into giving her the job, they do. After a few reviews of shows that come through town, she doubles down on her new career as a journalist and convinces her editors to assign her to a feature piece, putting her on a plane for the first time to interview rocker John Kite (Alfie Allen). But the resulting piece is, like that review of Annie, so cheesy her editors refuse to publish it, finally breaking Johanna’s spirit and giving birth to Dolly Wilde—a give-no-shits, pull-no-punches badass who makes a name for herself by tearing other people down.
Fairly predictably, Dolly burns enough bridges en route to her infamy that it becomes harder and harder for Johanna—and those who know her best—to know where one part of her ends and the other begins. But when you’re sixteen and hitting those high highs (and low lows) for the first time, sometimes you have to feel the heat to even realize anything is on fire. Johanna’s journey to self-discovery is at turns exhilarating (watching her build her new, slightly goofy look, all corsets and top hats, is a blast) and at others heartbreaking (the moment she realizes the man she loves doesn’t feel that way about her in return), and Feldstein commits to every moment with the zeal of someone who understands their character on a cellular level.
After all the drama blows up in her face, Johanna has to reckon with the havoc she’s wreaked on everyone from her parents to John Kite to the muses on her hero wall. At this point, the film starts to feel like the book adaptation that it is, with everything tying up into bows that are a bit too neat, Johanna getting off the hook more easily than is realistic. The truth is, stirring up shit for the fun of it comes with consequences that go beyond sideways glances from colleagues and a huffy exchange with your brother, some of which don’t go away just because you say you’re sorry. It’s probably true that to some, How to Build a Girl will play as overly coy or outlandish, and maybe it is—certainly some of Dolly’s antics are too goofy to be believable. But her inner growth is sincere, as is every success and misstep along the way.