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TIFF 2019 Review: How To Build A Girl – “Moving and inspiring”

Image courtesy of TIFF

Johanna Morrigan is a daydreamer.  Sitting in the library at school she doodles and fantasizes about a Mr. Darcy type romance and a way out of her English town of Wolverhampton.  She’s also determined to make it happen all on her own.  “No, I do not think my adventure starts with a boy.  It starts with me,” she confidently claims.  And in that one line, you have a good indication of what to expect in How To Build A Girl.

Johanna (Beanie Feldstein, Booksmart) wants to be a writer.  At sixteen, she adorns her walls with pictures of her heroes like Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Taylor. She lives in a small house with her four siblings, a mother with post-partum depression, and a father (Paddy Considine) who once had a dream to be a musician, but now settles for breeding Border Collies.  Johanna wants better things for herself, and to help her family out financially, so at the behest of her eldest brother, she writes a music review for a London magazine.

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Thinking her article on the Annie soundtrack was a joke, the editors at the magazine don’t take her seriously, but Johanna pulls herself up and convinces them, getting a gig writing reviews for concerts.  When they assign her a feature interviewing a musician (Alfie Allen as a smouldering rock star really works – trust me) her inexperience and feelings take hold and she gets fired for her flowery prose.  Instead of admitting defeat, she reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde, a woman who realizes it can actually ‘pay to be a bitch’.  She’s an immense success.  As she finds, “Once you’ve crossed over to the dark side, it doesn’t feel dark at all.”  Her mean spirited reviews and commentary on musicians makes her a star, but it takes a toll.

On its surface How to Build a Girl is perhaps just another coming of age story, but with Feldstein again proving how bright she shines, it feels like so much more.  Putting on her best English accent and holding nothing back, she tears through the smart, bitingly humorous screenplay by Caitlin Moran.  Director Coky Giedroyc (Women Talking Dirty) employs just enough fantastical elements to keep the daydream alive while giving Feldstein free rein to play within her character.

What results is a fun, entertaining film about all the things you do wrong, before you find out what feels right.  We never judge Johanna for all her missteps, because on some level we’ve all been there.  Her journey is relatable, at any age, as we are all constantly evolving.  The film culminates in a moving soliloquy that I truthfully found moving and inspiring, and I hope others do too.  Sometimes the only way to truly build yourself up is to tear it all down.

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