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"HOW TO BUILD A GIRL"
(2020) (Beanie Feldstein, Paddy Considine) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Dramedy: A British teen reinvents herself as a 1990s era music critic but must deal with the repercussions of her sudden success.
PLOT:

It's the 1990s and Johanna Morrigan (BEANIE FELDSTEIN) is a 16-year-old who lives in Wolverhampton, England with her parents -- Pat (PADDY CONSIDINE), a failed musician turned illegal dog breeder, and Angie (SARAH SOLEMANI), a woman worn out from having too many kids -- her still closeted brother, Krissi (LAURIE KYNASTON), and their three younger siblings.

Johanna wants to be a writer and has imaginary conservations with photos and images of famous people and characters from the past on her bedroom wall who've inspired her. Despite their support, her appearance on a TV show reading one of her poems goes disastrously wrong.

As does a short-lived interview for a weekly music publication. Inspired by another of her imaginary conservations, though, she storms back into the staff office and talks her way into covering new local bands. Reinventing herself as the avant-garde Dolly Wilde, Johanna becomes good enough in that role that she talks her way into an assignment interviewing singer-songwriter John Kite (ALFIE ALLEN) who senses a kindred spirit in the teen.

But when her fluff piece about him is rejected, she once again reinvents herself and dives fully into the persona of a belligerently harsh critic that makes her the talk of the town. But that fame and infamy mean she must deal with the repercussions of her sudden success.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10

I never really thought about it until I started writing this review, but "come" is one of the more versatile words in the English language. You can come along with someone after something has come about, such as when a criminal comes at you, which might come across as bad luck, meaning you might have to come up with something if you come upon someone who came down with a bad case of coming to grips with that person coming clean.

I came across those and plenty more such terms when looking for the origins of "coming of age" which, when you think about it, sounds fairly weird. I didn't come to any definitive conclusion about when or why it was first used, but it's certainly a common phrase especially in storytelling and far more often than not as related to teenage girls transitioning from childhood into young adulthood.

The latest such work is "How to Build a Girl," a dramedy loosely based on the real-life exploits of Caitlin Moran and her later semi-autobiographical book. Sort of following in the footsteps of Cameron Crowe -- who, as a teen in the 1970s, talked and worked his way into becoming the youngest contributor ever for Rolling Stone and interviewed some of the biggest artists of the time -- Moran became a teen journalist working for the weekly music publication Melody Maker at the ripe old age of sixteen in the early 1990s.

That experience and some artistic liberties resulted in her 2014 work and now this adaptation where she serves as a co-screenwriter with John Niven. Beanie Feldstein (best known for co-starring in "Booksmart" and really too old at 26 to be playing 16, but hey, we accepted such age issues in "Grease") appears as a fictionalized version of Moran.

When we first meet her, she has better interpersonal relationships with her collection of photos of famous people and characters mounted on her wall of inspiration than she does her classmates or most of her family, save for her still closeted teenage brother and confidant (Laurie Kynaston).

In a creative tactic lifted from the "Harry Potter" films, director Coky Giedroyc has those figures move about inside their frames as they chat with our innocent and socially awkward protagonist who dreams of becoming a writer like some of them.

While not original, it's a fun touch that helps make the first half of the flick both charming and entertaining and you end up rooting for this girl to succeed. That includes when she adopts the persona and avant-garde fashion look of her reporter alter-ego, Dolly Wilde, and ends up interviewing, befriending and secretly falling for the dreamy singer-songwriter John Kite (Alfie Allen).

But the second half then delves into her becoming the toast of the town and getting too big for her britches as she achieves fame and infamy by turning into a belligerent and nasty gossip writer who trashes people left and right while also -- perhaps more surprisingly -- turning into an ultra promiscuous young woman.

All of which happens too quickly in my book and ultimately leads, like many a rock star she would have covered, to her crashing down hard for flying too hard into the spotlight. But even that quickly flips back to lighthearted material, all of which undermines, to some extent, all of the goodwill the first half so easily created.

So, while our heroine certainly comes of age, I would have preferred the transition to be less jarring and rushed, and instead have maintained the fun whimsy exuded earlier on. Far better in the first half than the second, "How to Build a Girl" rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed May 6, 2020 / Posted May 8, 2020


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