An awkward teenager reinvents herself in “How to Build a Girl,” a charming but mostly uninspired film based on the best-selling novel by Caitlin Moran. The coming-of-age story is fresh in a way that’s distinctly offbeat, but not refreshingly so. It’s saved by the irresistible performance of lead Beanie Feldstein, even if the actor is too old to be believable as a sixteen year old girl.
Johanna (Feldstein) is a quirky teen with a carefree imagination. She puts her creativity to good use daydreaming and expressing herself through writing. She desperately longs to escape her poor life in a crowded flat that she shares with her parents and four brothers. When Johanna submits a music review to a local magazine, the group of editors are amused enough to offer her a job as their new rock critic. Her first major assignment doesn’t go well, so the young girl sets out to change her look, her attitude, and her name to Dolly Wilde. With her new red hair and kooky clothes, Johanna “crosses over to the dark side” and becomes a nasty, mean-spirited person, writing rude and insulting reviews of every band she hears.
It’s a breeze to root for Johanna, the atypical heroine that we’re introduced to at the start of the film. She’s bullied, lonely, and nothing ever seems to go right. We want this underdog to succeed, and we can all share in the hope that she’ll become a success in life. But when she becomes Dolly, it’s not easy to be such a cheerleader for her callous and rude alter-ego.
The film has a likely limited appeal to teenagers, which is a shame, because it does have some amusing observations of the journey to becoming a grown woman. Feldstein is really terrific and while she’s not wholly miscast, it’s ridiculous that she is supposed to be playing a sixteen year old. Even her character handles herself too well and with too much sophistication for a supposed teenager. It’s difficult to suspend disbelief when someone is too wise beyond her years.
The film’s overall theme is still a valid one, as Johanna changes her looks and her life but — stop me if you’ve heard this before — she changes on the inside, too. At least she realizes that she’s become rotten to the core and has the mindset to change it all once more. It’s uplifting to see a young woman become comfortable with her own personality and her existence, and despite oodles of immaturity, it’s never too late to undo the damage you’ve caused. Great things happen when you decide to just be yourself, and that’s a universal message that everyone needs to hear at some point in their life.