What do you do when you’ve built yourself up with all the wrong pieces? This is the basic lesson taught in a new coming-of-age comedy called “How to Build a Girl”. Directed, produced, and written by all women and starring one of the late 2010s most charming breakout comedy actresses Beanie Feldstein, “How to Build a Woman” is only the latest installment of a recent subgenre of comedies exploring the female side of growing up and finding one’s identity. Like its predecessors, it feels long overdue. Based on a novel of the same name from the film’s screenwriter Caitlin Moran and directed by Coky Giedroyc this British comedy debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019 before IFC Films spearheaded its release in the United States earlier this month. Seeking to capture a woman’s evolution from fantasizing high schooler to cynical career woman at a crucial turning point in her young life, “How to Build a Girl” doesn’t necessarily reinvent a familiar formula but embraces it in all the right ways.
“How to Build a Girl” sees Beanie Feldstein portray Johanna Morrigan, a high schooler in England who dreams of experiencing a personal awakening like the women in books and films and looks up to the greats of the past who have helped change the world. She even talks to these legends through imaginary conversations with pictures on her bedroom wall. As an aspiring writer Johanna jumps at the opportunity to submit a review to a rock music magazine in hopes of landing a job. She succeeds only to find her writings looked down upon for being too “fangirlish” and her gender being held against her by the men at the company. Johanna decides to compromise her personal identity and morals for a chance at success and acceptance adopting a new, cynical persona and inflated ego leading her on a dark path where she must choose to embrace who she has become or be brave enough to admit her faults and change for the better before she goes too far.
“How to Build a Girl” is a very familiar set up from the frustrated youth archetype to the music-related plot element that opens the door to Johanna’s personal awakening. In discussing it with a friend of mine I actually affectionately called it “Almost Famous” but with a woman instead of a man at the center of the revelations. I could criticize this film for being too familiar in its depiction of the “coming-of-age” journey, but, like its main character, the quality isn’t determined by how much it tries to be something it’s not but how effectively it becomes it’s own thing in spite of its flaws. “How to Build a Girl” may borrow many ideas from the subgenre it embraces, but it also manages to be surprisingly fresh and engaging taking cliches and shamelessly adapting them in an interesting way. As we see Joanna undergo several personal transformations, some good and some bad, she remains endlessly relatable and her story touches on very relevant ideas like sexism and the consequences of being a sellout. However it’s most important lesson is that people should be willing and able to change when they realize they aren’t on the path they want to lead. What makes “How to Build a Girl” particularly striking is it’s willingness to ask its audience to hate its main character and want her to change eventually asking the viewer to take a look at themselves and, if they aren’t happy with who they are, be brave enough to evolve. It’s a pretty powerful and frankly unique approach to the identity crisis these movies often address and it’s a lesson tackled with both tact and honesty throughout the film.
Helping sell this approach is Beanie Feldstein who continues to prove herself a force to be reckoned with as a comedic actress specifically in dramadies like this. Despite being 26-years old she has now portrayed three believable teenage characters over the last five years in “Lady Bird”, “Booksmart” and now “How to Build a Girl” turning every one of them into hilarious but relatable characters for girls and growing women to cling to as flawed role models. Joanna might be her most impactful and honest role to date. Feldstein presents her character’s evolution seamlessly and imbues her with an endless charm that makes us route for her even at her worst. But there’s a lesson to be taught here for anyone willing to listen and Feldstein seems to realize that and work it into her approach to the role. Every revelation or change to Johanna’s personality feels purposeful and natural even at it contradicts who her character used to be. The changes aren;t jarring and are always justified, and I think a lot of people can be honest is saying they too may have made the same tragic compromise, but Feldstein never let’s her character go too far over the deep end or become too righteous. She’s simply a human who makes mistakes and has to learn from them to evolve.
But it’s not all serious stuff and that’s what makes “How to Build a Girl” really special. Yes, it has some powerful statements to make to the women watching but it never takes itself too seriously keeping things lighthearted even when Johanna goes full on bitch mode. A solid supporting cast helps compliment Feldstein as she banters on, some serving to ground the film other to add to the humor and others still serving both purposes as the story progresses. “How to Build a Girl” juggles its relevant and significant statements about learning from life and the willingness to always evolve with an overarching sense of humor never letting any situation drag the momentum to a crawl while still finding time to delve into the emotional weight of Johanna’s struggles. It’s a well-balanced approach to telling a story with purpose and comedic flair that I think a lot of modern genre pieces could really learn from. It is possible to say something important while also providing a hilarious and fun experience throughout. “How to Build a Girl” is only the latest in a growing line of smart comedies that accomplish this feat spectacularly.
“How to Build a Girl” is held back a little by its familiar concepts and ideas, but not enough to deny it a place as one of the best comedies of 2020 to date. Driven by a standout performance from Beanie Feldstein, a strong supporting cast, an ever present sense of purpose, and a crew made up of mostly women who clearly have an understanding and respect for the female experience “How to Build a Girl” finds a great balance between being hilarious entertainment and a insightful offering life lesson to all the women, hell honestly to anyone who is watching that who we are, who we were and who we become is not who we always have to be. It’s a stark reminder that life is about learning from our mistakes and learning when to compromise and when to fight for who we are. It’s just an all-around good movie that knows exactly what it wants to be and what it wants to say unapologetically owning every minute of its time to sell it. It’s the whole package and a solid coming-of-age comedy to kick off the new decade.