Being a teen girl is a weird space to occupy. It’s like being trapped in an unyielding vortex where you’re treated like an adult, and an infant in the same breath. Diana Sanchez’ How to Build A Girl is a story about one 16-year-old taking her destiny in her own hands. She does this in the face of fear, trepidation and the world telling her she’s not worthy of her own agency. Historically, girls have shouldered more responsibilities than boys both in and out of the household. Because of the sexualization of the female body and sexism– we’re often silenced, shoved to the side or locked away. How to Build A Girl is about self-liberation.
Set in the ’90s, the film is based on Caitlin Moran’s semiautobiographical novel and follows 16-year old Johanna Morrigan (Booksmart’s Beanie Feldstein). Witty, imaginative and a bit boy crazy, Johanna longs to break free of her working-class English town, and her loving but dysfunctional family. With her gay brother/ best friend, Chris, her wanna-be rockstar dad, her school-age little brother, and her postpartum depressive mother whose recently given birth to twin boys, Johanna feels forgotten about.
She continually bullied at school, and she spends time daydreaming and writing. However, Johanna knows in her gut that she is destined to do more. It’s a self-assuredness that most teenage girls cling on to despite the world’s determination to stamp it out of them. Desperate to get out of Wolverhampton, and in need of money to help her family, Johanna applies to be a music writer for a London-based magazine.
It’s clear from the beginning that Johanna has a gift for the written word. However, she knows less than nothing about rock n’ roll. In addition to being a rock novice–Johanna has internalized every negative thing that has been said about her. Determined to be someone “better,” she reinvents herself into the vivacious and sometimes cruel, Dolly Wilde. The very opposite of Johanna–Dolly takes pleasure in cutting down others and being sexually insatiable.
Using quirky flairs like the moving/talking posters in Johanna’s room, or the dream-like interludes with the object of her affection–rock star, John Kite (Game of Thrones’ Alfie Allan)–How to Build A Girl is fun to look at. Sanchez creates a magical fairytale-like dream of a film–where Johanna learns to fall in love with herself. However, as many of us who’ve gone on self-love journeys understand, it’s a winding, twisty road in letting go of your past traumas, fears, and faults. As a result, Johanna’s glow-up is not without its growing pains.
As Dolly, Johanna feels like she’s at the center of the universe–rocking a top hat over her cherry-red hair, draped in fishnet tights, and a dramatic black waist cost. But that’s just dressing. As cliche as it might sound if you don’t like yourself or you’re determined to live your life the way others think you should–you’ll fail. As the old saying goes, “whenever you go, there you are.”
Surrounded by a stellar cast, Feldstein is magnetic as Johanna, and she even masters that English accent. Her moxie and quirkiness shine in the film, and even in the midst of her mean girl transformation into Dolly, she never quite loses her charm. With a fantastic soundtrack and quippy one-liners, How to Build A Girl is thoroughly entertaining even when it gets gritty and mean.
The film isn’t quite perfect–as it rather predictably hits all of the stereotypical beats of a “coming-of-age” story. However, the message of How to Build A Girl remains loud in clear. It’s about subverting the hetero-normative patriarchal fairytale and centering yourself. As Johanna says, when the film opens, “I do not think my adventure starts with a boy, it starts with me.”
How To Build A Girl debuted Sept. 6 at the Toronto International Film Festival.