‘How to Build a Girl’ Review: Write On - The New York Times

Critic’s Pick

Beanie Feldstein rocks as a nerdy high schooler who transforms into a music critic in this clever comedy.

Credit...Sven Arnstei/IFC Films
How to Build a Girl
NYT Critic's Pick
Directed by Coky Giedroyc
1h 42m

Bursting at the seams with plot and patter, Coky Giedroyc’s coming-of-age comedy, “How to Build a Girl,” gives you a whole lot for your money. Sometimes almost too much: This brisk, breathless story of a socially inept high schooler in the 1990s who finds notoriety as a rock critic (adapted by Caitlin Moran from her semi-autobiographical novel) has so many peaks and valleys that on paper it would look like Joe Exotic’s polygraph.

It’s just as well, then, that it stars the supremely game Beanie Feldstein (playing a more mettlesome version of her “Booksmart” character) as Johanna, 16, an aspiring writer who craves being cool. Voluble and nerdy, Johanna lives in council-housing ignominy in the British Midlands with a feckless father (an overlooked Paddy Considine), a postnatally depressed mother (Sarah Solemani) and a mess of brothers. Constantly stirring a caldron of wants, Johanna has little going for her except cheek, ambition and — crucially — a vocabulary.

She’ll need all three when she wins a contest to write for a rock magazine (despite knowing little about music beyond the “Annie” soundtrack), rechristens herself Dolly Wilde and briefly soars before falling flat on her face. Picking herself up and dusting herself off becomes something of a habit as Dolly is humiliated by her male colleagues — entitled snobs who view her as an amusing curiosity — and rejected by her first crush. In response, her prose swerves from starry-eyed to snarky (she describes one band’s music as “ear cystitis”) and her journalistic stock climbs.

Like a stone skipping on water, “How to Build a Girl” leaps from raunchy to charming, vulgar to sweet, earthy to airy-fairy without allowing any one to settle. Yet it’s so wonderfully funny and deeply embedded in class-consciousness — “We must never forget it’s a miracle when anyone gets anywhere from a bad postcode,” says one character — that it’s tonal incontinence is easily forgiven. There are at least five visions of Johanna here, and Feldstein nails every one of them.

How to Build a Girl

Rated R for getting naked and talking dirty. Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes. Rent or buy on Amazon, iTunes and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.

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