Thursday, May 14, 2020

How to Build a Girl

Frustrating but brash and captivating.

I don’t know what I was expecting going into How to Build a Girl, but it definitely wasn’t that. It is way more frustrating than it was entertaining, but it has an unrelenting brashness that makes it very captivating. Right off the bat, the casting of Beanie Feldstein just seems all wrong. She is not a teenaged British wall-flower hiding in obscurity, and I was screaming at my TV, did the entire world forget that there are other up-and-coming actresses?   2020

Directed by: Coky Giedroyc

Screenplay by: Caitlin Moran
Based on the novel by Caitlin Moran

Starring: Beanie Feldstein, Frank Dillane, and Alfie Allen

But then Johanna became Dolly Wilde and casting is no longer an issue since that was a challenging transition that played out perfectly and more subtly than expected.

The film has a curious relationship with reality. It’s hard to accept the real emotions and reactions of the characters since so much of this is not real life at all, and then when you read that it’s based on a true story, you just want to laugh at the ludicrousness of society. This takes place in a world that I have never lived in, and it is definitely exaggerated into a fantastical piece, so at times it is very difficult to connect to or relate to. But on the other hand, Johanna’s just a girl, unhappy with her life, smarter than her surroundings will allow her to be, and every sixteen year-old has felt that.

Johanna’s a brilliant writer, although we’re constantly told that and never shown that, and it is hard to decide if she actually is a brilliant writer or if she just thought she was. She’s also socially unaware and can’t seem to rise above being the butt of the joke. And then she realizes that she can get what she wants if she just asks for it and show that she can do anything. And Dolly Wilde is born; a very confident, fiery-haired age-less woman with an attitude and fashion sense to match. Dolly Wilde marks the beginning of the steam punk era. And as unrealistic as it was, it was fascinating to watch. Her downfall seemed inevitable, but the longer she thrived in the rock glam world, the more I was willing to accept her as a character. I cheered Dolly on.

I described Dolly as age-less, mostly because as Dolly, Johanna’s age didn’t matter anymore. She was allowed to do whatever she wanted with no regard to the fact that she was just sixteen. But here’s a big problem with that: How To Build a Girl is marketed as a romantic comedy. She has two suitors in the film, one is a rock star, famous and an adult, like late-20s adult. The other is a fellow writer, an employed music critic adult, like mid-20s adult, who literally calls her jail bait. Was that supposed to be funny? Or romantic? I was yelling statutory rape instead of laughing.

By the end, the film very clearly comments on Johanna growing up too fast. She isn’t ready to be Dolly, and her transition back to her true self is gradual enough to allow the audience to recognize it as it was happening. It’s a romantic comedy with no suitable option, but then again, the number one rule of romantic comedies is that the protagonist must find themselves first. And that is the ultimate point of How To Build a Girl. It’s just a sixteen year-old girl finding herself and it has never been told in quite this way before.