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article imageReview: TIFF 2019: ‘How to Build a Girl’ has fun finding her way Special

By Sarah Gopaul     Sep 16, 2019 in Entertainment
‘How to Build a Girl’ is an amusing coming-of-age story in which a teenage girl finds her voice via scathing music reviews.
Knowing you have a gift and not being able to use it to its full potential is one of the most frustrating feelings. Add to that the exasperation of being a teenager with few choices, the vexation of not fitting in or being cool, and the annoyance of being relatively poor, and there really is nowhere to go but up… and then possibly back down again really fast and hard. The key is to eventually find the niche that complements the real you and not some version created for dramatic effect. In How to Build a Girl, a young woman finds someone else before finally finding herself.
Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein) is a bit of an odd girl who’s really only understood and accepted by her family. But she has an incredible way with words, which makes her sound unlike any of her peers but read as if she has no peers. Without a proper outlet, she submits novellas for standard writing assignments and makes people uncomfortable with her cheerfulness. When she submits an essay on the soundtrack to Annie to a music magazine, they think it’s a joke. However, convinced of her writing potential, they give a Johanna an assignment. And thus, Dolly Wilde, music critic extraordinaire, is born. But new to fame and praise, she lets it all get away from her and eventually hurts the people she loves.
There are definitely some parallels with Almost Famous, but Johanna doesn’t have a mentor to tell her not to become friends with the band. Instead, she’s naively wading through these unfamiliar waters alone and embracing every new experience with open arms. Moreover, she’s surrounded by men trying to get into her fishnet stockings, while being secretly embarrassed they don’t have her talent. When her heartfelt feature about a singer is rejected for being too kind and true, she turns her pen into a sword and cuts down every artist to reach her ears — whether it’s true or not. Adopting the mantra, “B!tch gotta pay the rent,” she becomes the most loved and hated critic in London.
Dolly Wilde is an incredible girl with fiery red hair complemented by ruby lipstick and a glamourous sense of style. She won’t be pushed around and welcomes the title of “A$$hole of the Year.” Gradually, spending time with her family is supplemented with buying them things and paying the bills — which is a lot of pressure for a young woman and a situation they take for granted. When Dolly is finally dethroned by the victims of her sharp tongue and vengeful typewriter, she does what any sweet, young kid would do after realizing they’ve hurt someone — she apologizes in a way that maintains her charm and is perfectly suited to the character (and her obsession with Jo March).
This is a coming-of-age comedy that doesn’t abide by the rules of typical teen girl narratives. Johanna doesn’t have body issues, a school bully or a love interest that doesn’t know she’s alive. She’s comfortable with who she is, enjoys her sexual awakening on her terms and has a loving family. Dolly Wilde begins as an extension of her personality — it’s her evolution post-rejection that becomes problematic. But it’s all part of growing up, granted in lavish style. Booksmart’s Feldstein is wonderful and it’s impossible to picture anyone else giving the part the same level of energy, humour and likability. And no one could pick themselves up, dust themselves off and give a speech like she does.
Not exactly a how-to for budding young writers or journalists, the film is an entertaining depiction of living, learning and eventually getting to laugh about it.
How to Build a Girl had its world premiere in the Special Presentations category at the Toronto International Film Festival. Don’t miss the rest of our TIFF 2019 coverage.
Director: Coky Giedroyc
Starring: Beanie Feldstein, Alfie Allen and Emma Thompson
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