Directed by Coky Giedroyc, of US TV shows The Killing and Penny Dreadful, the film has plenty of heart and a big dollop of goofy humour in its snappy dialogue, but falters midway due to an inconsistency of tone.
Actress Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird, Booksmart) carries the story as 16-year-old Johanna Morrigan, who in the early scenes is seen as a bright and bookish girl with a lust for life.
Having come from a working-class background and gone through school as an ostracised outsider who quoted James Joyce’s Ulysses and had heroes like Sigmund Freud, Johanna goes on a journey of self-discovery that begins when she lands a job as a rock ’n’ roll writer for fictional magazine D&ME.
She never actually becomes a rock ’n’ roll aficionado, however. Instead, after rebukes from her slimy new colleagues, she transforms herself into self-proclaimed “evil” and spiteful critic Dolly Wilde, even winning the accolade of “Biggest arsehole of the year” at the D&ME awards.
This new Johanna is distinctly unlikeable, pushing away her family, teachers and every aspect of her previous life. Although Feldstein gives a strong performance, and there may be truth in her character’s comment that “a nice girl gets nowhere, but a bitch can make a name for herself”, it doesn’t always make for enjoyable viewing.
We never fully understand Johanna’s motivations, and the character epiphany at the end comes too late to really salvage the film.
One fun aspect of How to Build a Girl is that it is packed with recognisable British performers, ranging from Emma Thompson and Chris O’Dowd, to British pop star Lily Allen as Elizabeth Taylor. Allen’s brother Alfie Allen, of Game of Thrones fame, has a starring role as Welsh musician John Kite, who serves as Johanna’s love interest.
There is a good movie somewhere in How to Build a Girl, but it seems stuck between being a kind of Bridget Jones’s Diary and a serious drama about a working-class girl who earns her stripes through hard work and talent.
How to Build a Girl is screening again on October 24 at Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas as part of the Adelaide Film Festival, which continues until October 25. Read more previews and stories here.