Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein) is so uncool she manages to swing back around to being kind of cool. She doesn't often see herself reflected in the things she loves. She is kind awkward and silly, a little bit overweight, smart as hell, obsessed with her dog and all around friendless when we meet her. She regularly has imaginary conversations with her idols like Sylvia Plath and Sigmund Freud. However, there is a glimmer of coolness in her like an ember that just needs to be fanned in order to set a flame.
In lesser films, there would be a need to give Johanna a romantic pursuit that would transform her. Coky Giedroyc's How To Build A Girl resists this. Right from the first act, Johanna declares "I do not think my adventure starts with a boy." This is one of the satisfying qualities that mark this coming of age story based on journalist Caitlin Moran's memoir.
Johanna's loving brother Krissi (Laurie Kynaston) is far cooler. He has friends and punk rock zine. He knows his sister has talent so when he sees an add for London-based rock magazine looking for a young writer, he encourages his sister to apply. She does, penning a passionate and misguided review of the Annie soundtrack. The staff at the NME pseudo rock mag invite her in, if only to call out a prank. When they meet the sincere Johanna, they almost laugh her out of the building but Johanna fights back and earns a chance to review a Manic Street Preachers show. It changes her life.
Thus kicks off Johanna's fun transformation from hopeless nerd to snarky rock critic. She begins writing as "Dolly Wilde" donning a new, hip look to try and fit in. And she does fit in for a while. Over time, however, she becomes a shell of herself by letting her new persona overtake the best parts of her. She even wins "Asshole of the Year" at one point.
Feldstein adds a lot to the character. Her performance is measured in a way that adds nuance to some of the more cliched moments in the film. She can convey the heart and emotional heft of this formative age. She has done it before in Booksmart. The rest of the cast is serviceable but the film belongs to Johanna and her journey.
How To Build A Girl may not bring anything new to the coming of age genre but it has a whole lot of heart and an interesting backdrop in the 90's Britpop era. Feldstein is winning as the lead. The film is enjoyable, funny, and moving at times.