How to Build a Girl is the sort of film that allows you to write 90% of your review of it simply by making positive or negative comparisons to other films it evokes. The problem that creates, at least for me, is that such comparison are rarely to the film’s advantage.
The presence of Beanie Feldstein as a too smart to be cool high-schooler (Johanna) immediately invites comparison to Booksmart. That film had a bit more fire and energy; this one forces Beanie to talk to herself instead of having dialogue between friends.
Then there is the Nick Hornby trifecta. Like Juliet, Naked, this film features a female music writer who exposes the facile nature of music criticism and the adolescent brand of masculinity that revels in its cocksure, contemptuous disregard for the thing to which it claims to be devoted. Like High Fidelity, it features a self-destructive introvert breaking the fourth wall to let viewers know how to interpret the scenes we are about to watch. As in An Education (which features a Hornby screeplay), the smart girl has a devoted literature teacher who recognizes her genius and tries in vain to keep her from self-destructing.
Like Blinded by the Light, How to Build a Girl situates an aspiring writer in a household that doesn’t appreciate his/her talents.
Heck, when all of Feldstein’s pictures start talking to her, I was even reminded of Persepolis. (Karl Marx just seems to float around limbo, just waiting to talk to young girls, the chattiest ghost this side of Peeves.) I’ve read a few reviews that liken the plot of the film to that of Almost Famous.
Such associations go on and on, and enumerating them used to make me feel smart, but I realized as I got older that the more of them I saw, the less I was actually being drawn into the story of the film itself. If you are spending most of your time during a movie thinking about other movies, that’s not a good sign.
There were a few scenes that played out differently than what I expected but the film had a hard time stringing them together long enough to escape the fog of convention. The way one musician responded to Johanna’s apology for the barbs of her alter ego, Dolly Wilde, was fresh. An early office scene where Johanna/Dolly responds to some sexual harassment was one of the few where you saw Johanna beneath the mask of Dolly rather than just the persona herself.
Mostly, though, my listlessness at the film stemmed from its tendency to tell us way too much. When one of her visions tells her to go back into the room of frat boys who have rejected her writing, Johanna responds, “I’m too scared.” When Johanna is revealed to a musician to not know the lyrics to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” he says, “Yet you know Ulysses” just in case someone in the audience missed the not-subtle-to-begin-with point that Johanna is atypical of music reporters (or, for that matter that her subject is not the typical culturally illiterate celebrity). When Johanna is embarrassed by a bloody panti-liner, she has to have a naive onlooker say “what’s that?” as she scrubs it in the sink. At no point does the film trust anyone — audience or onlooker — except Johanna to get the point unless Johanna verbalizes it for us.
I guess that means the bulk of the blame goes to Caitlin Moran for the screenplay, and to try to be fair, that sort of protagonist probably works better as a first-person narrator in a young adult novel than in a film.
Early returns on How to Build a Girl have trended positive, so your mileage may vary. I hate to use the old evasion of “for fans only,” but if the dress fits…