Review: How to Build a Girl

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

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PLOT: A working-class English teen (Beanie Feldstein) living in 1990’s Wolverhampton becomes an unlikely cult icon when she transforms herself into a notoriously cruel music critic at an influential magazine.

REVIEW: HOW TO BUILD A GIRL, in some ways, plays out like a gender-flipped version of Cameron Crowe’s ALMOST FAMOUS, albeit set in Brit-pop era England with a mean streak. Is it as good as Crowe’s film? Obviously not, but it’s still a pretty worthy little flick, grounded by Beanie Feldstein’s winning performance and a refreshingly empathetic script by Caitlin Moran, a real-life rock critic whose semi-autobiographical memoir this is based on.

While Feldstein may not be the first person to come to mind when making a film about a working-class British teen, it can’t be denied that she has charisma to burn and, to my uneducated ears, she does a pretty capable job with an English accent, something that’s proven to be almost impossible to pull off even for some of the biggest American stars. Maybe the film works so well because her character here isn’t that far removed from her roles in LADY BIRD and BOOKSMART. One again she plays a naive teen prone to flights of fancy, but Coky Giedroyc’s film does a better job than most conveying the sudden flash of ego someone experiences once their bonafides as a critic are established and suddenly your opinion is courted.

how to build a girl Beanie Feldstein

The movie charts Feldstein’s nice girl Johanna, who bops around listening to the ANNIE soundtrack and has a picture of Julie Andrews on her wall (with the photos of her heroes coming to life in fantasy sequences – a great opportunity for a bunch of juicy cameos), through her transformation into the affected, and dreaded critic Dolly Wilde, who becomes famous for her poison pen critiques. It does a good job depicting the sudden boost of ego Johanna experiences, and boy can you tell this is a period piece when the checks start to roll in (in a contemporary version – Johanna would be a blogger and the sudden windfalls would be non-existent). She’s quite good, making us believe how this sweet girl would affect a certain viciousness to gain fame and influence, and it’s a tribute to how likeable Feldstein is that, even at her cruelest, you’re always kind of on her side.

The supporting cast is similarly good, with Paddy Considine stealing scenes as her wannabe rock star dad while Alfie Allen has a great part as the rock star she develops a rapport with – kind of this movie’s equivalent to Billy Crudup in ALMOST FAMOUS. Usually in movies like this, the rock star winds up a debauched character, but here’s he’s portrayed as utterly decent and kind. It’s a real change of pace for him (look for his sister – Lily Allen – in a fun cameo as a fantasy version of Elizabeth Taylor). Of course, being a nineties set movie about Brit-pop, the soundtrack is pretty killer despite the low budget, with tracks by the Manic Street Preachers and more.

I’m kind of surprised that, in the wake of Feldstein’s sudden rise to fame, HOW TO BUILD A GIRL isn’t getting more of a build-up, as it’s a fun, accessible movie that she’s great in. Surely she’s a star just waiting to happen, and this is a strong follow-up vehicle to BOOKSMART. Given how scant the new release offerings are, this is well worth a VOD rental, especially if you know something about the era it depicts or are just in the mood for a big-hearted British comedy. Check it out!


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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.