The title is illuminating, and ironic: How to Build a Girl. We girls don't have cultural scripts for building ourselves in the way that boys do, which come at boys from all angles: from pop culture, from sports, from history lessons in school, from everything that they see in the world that tells them they can do whatever they want and all barriers they encounter can be surmounted. (Disclaimer: applies mostly only to straight white boys, and isn't even really true, but still it gives them a confidence boost, and the arrogance to expect everything from the world, and that's hugely important.)
Certainly movies historically have not had a lot of interest in letting teen girls be anything other than supporting characters in boys' constructions, in a filmdom dominated by male filmmakers. But we've had a few really, really good movies about teen girls recently, like last year's Little Women and Booksmart.
And now we have How to Build a Girl, which would have been a small theatrical release if cinemas hadn't been shuttered. This is not an arthouse film, however, except in that it is about that weird creature, a teenaged girl. Maybe now, with no other new movies to see, it can garner a significant audience on VOD among those desperate for new movies.
I hope so. Because this is a lovely, goofy movie. It is easygoing, chaotic and a bit all over the place, just like journalist, essayist and professional messy girl Caitlin Moran, upon whose semiautobiographical novel this is based. (Moran also wrote the screenplay.) And it stars Booksmart's Beanie Feldstein, who is a goddamn American national treasure, a sort of everygirl (or at least every-white-girl) who cheerfully embodies the audacious self-possession and conviction of a young woman who dares to be herself in the face of regular opposition telling her to shut up and pipe down.
Here, Feldstein's Johanna Morrigan is British, 16 years old in the early 1990s, and less assured of a successful path in life until she, smart but underprivileged, finds her voice as a critic for a rock-music magazine.
Or does she? Find her voice, that is. Johanna's journey is shaped by the cruelty of boys and men who run the field she has chosen to jump into, a cruelty that overtly states that it wants fresh new perspectives while sneakily molding them into more of the same-old same-old. Johanna is absolutely desperate to be "cool," and to be seen as cool, and yet the narrowness of the definition of "cool" trips her up and fools her into thinking that conformity is where it's at. (She doesn't seem to realize that her dad, for instance – played by the always amazing Paddy Considine – a still-trying-to-make-it musician, is authentically cool.) She lurches through fits and starts of "coolness," sometimes accidentally hitting on truly hip originality, but more often succumbing to the pressure of others.
Johanna stumbles through an awful lot – emphasis on the awful – as she discovers that the meanness that sells music magazines is antithetical to her irrepressible positive spirit. The hypocrisy of the world's expectations comes in for a gently sardonic knock: Look how the world tries to crush girls! Look how tough it is to push back! Look how unforgiving the world is when you give in to what it wants! The impossibility of women winning at life unless they embrace their own integrity is, maybe, the prime lesson any girl looking to build her life can take from this terrific movie.