Those drawn to "How to Build a Girl," an adaption of the best selling semi-autobiographical novel, by its lead Beanie Feldstein's previous scene stealing performances in recent standout female driven testaments like the rightfully lauded “Lady Bird” and “Booksmart” will unfortunately be immediately put off by the actress’ comical English accent and the general cartoonish and dismissive approach to illustrating this young girl’s life.
That is, except perhaps for the youngest women in the audience (think tweens), who might be yearning for a movie along the lines of “Eloise Becomes a Woman” aimed at their demographic.
If only the movie didn't contain a rather stark R-rated sexual diary section that inexplicably appears in the middle of the film — standing out like a needless soliloquy rather than an essential integrated part of a young woman’s blossoming self, as I’m sure it was meant.
That last failing might be due to employing the director of “Harlots”, which I love, though an 18th Century British brothel is arguably a better place for it.
In “How to Build," Johanna Morrigan is a brilliant but impoverished high school outcast with a vivid imagination, yearning for her life to start. She is obsessed with the rich lives of heroines in classic novels and dreams of becoming a writer herself, spending her days quoting obscure poetry and learning about music at the feet of her aspiring-musician father and indie band-obsessed brother.
When she enters a contest to review contemporary music for the local paper, she’s Bridget Jones in a backpack, traipsing around town with wide-eyed optimism, but she only succeeds in being as annoying as she was self-possessed in “Booksmart."
As Johanna begins her musical journey, she doesn't know anything about the Rolling Stones or getting stoned, but that doesn't stop her from falling in love with her subjects and writing love letters instead of music reviews, which is cute to the industry for a moment, but not enough to sustain her in the genre.
Instead, to keep her job and bring some money into her family’s flat, Johanna adopts the even more false persona of the slutty authority on hating everyone and everything in music. Her superior and biting writing skills soon make her one of the most popular critics in the city, as she goes to the dark side to cash in on her new-found popularity.
This movie wants to be crowned queen of the recent spate of feel good coming-of-age musically themed films like “Blinded by the Light”, “Teen Spirit”, “Hearts Beat Loud”, and “Sing Street," but it only succeeds in being the Joker.
The moments when it manages to feel like the originator of the genre “Almost Famous" is when it's most successful, but those moments come early and not often. Even Johanna’s own mother says to her, “This isn't the friggin’ Commitments," pandering directly to lovers of yet another beloved music driven vehicle.
Unfortunately, “How to Build” is just too cute, and everyone but the tweens can see the rest of the inevitable storyline coming, from the eventual estrangement of her loved ones and new friends, to literally shooting down her father’s hopes of a musical comeback attached to her coattails, to the reveal of how she’s actually being Pygmalion-ed by her fellow cutthroat music writing staff, all on her way to “building a girl."
Alfie Allen (“Game of Thrones," “Jojo Rabbit" and “Harlots”) as one of the slighted musicians is a bright spot, as are the actors portraying Johanna’s long-suffering family, but their more realistic approach to the material isn’t enough to balance her head in the clouds interpretation.
Emma Thompson is also attached to the film, so as with the recent “Late Night," her ability to nurture female talent and draw an audience serves its purpose, but in this case, she’s an afterthought on screen. Luckily, the musical accompaniment lives up to the expectation of a film at least peripherally about music, so at least one DIY promise is fulfilled in showing us “how to build a soundtrack."