New from Al and Linda Lerner on Movies and Shakers: How to Build A Girl

Beanie Feldstein exhibits almost complete teen angst in this “Almost Famous” update. Feldstein is sexy and sassy playing 16-year-old Johanna, but there are some flaws. Feldstein is relatable enough, though, in reality, much older, and her sweet, soft, not always spot-on English accent takes some getting used to. 

Director Coky Giedroyc gives imaginative treatment to Caitlin Moran’s semi-autobiographical novel and script where Feldstein plays an awkward, talented writer who becomes Dolly Wilde, an exuberant, bitchy rock critic with screaming red, bushy hair. This story is a graphic example of “Be careful what you wish for.” 

Moran’s script spotlights the teen dilemma of being between being a kid and an adult. Johanna (Feldstein – Booksmart, Lady Bird) may have the writing chops of an adult, but not the social experience to pull it off without consequences. Johanna goes through a complete transformation and back again, trying to find her best self. Beanie Feldstein shows all the twists and turns of teen years playing a nerdy, well-read 16-year-old trying to become one of the cool kids who takes it to the extreme. All she wants is to be noticed, accepted and maybe find someone to love. Teens will relate to Feldstein’s portrayal of anxiety, but because of the R rating, the audience it’s intended for may not see it.  

Progressive Director Giedroyc (Women Talking Dirty, The Virgin Queen, Penny Dreadful) uses creative camera work to show Johanna’s imagination at work. At the library where she is lonely and bored reading the same classics over and over, she is shot gazing out a window seeing cool males go by. She dreams of them giving her attention, winking at her, doing somersaults, half-naked. Their activity is reflected on the window she sits behind and you see her facial expressions react to each hunk of a daydream. It’s very real and cute. Also, very clever and creative is the wall of Johanna’s bedroom filled with framed heroes including Emily Brontë, Jo March, Julie Andrews in Sound of Music, Freud, Karl Marx, Cleopatra, Sylvia Plath and more. When exasperation sets in for Johanna to decide what to do next, the characters on the wall come to life offering both advice and criticism, which is really her own conscience.

All Johanna wants to do is escape her family’s overcrowded flat and bust out to explore the world. Her father is a musician wannabe who still bangs away on the drums in the family’s living room. His wife, Johanna’s mom, is in severe postpartum after delivering surprise twins. Her depression has put a barrier up between mother and daughter. Mum isn’t there for guidance and support. And her brother tries to be a friend to his smart but dorky sister who doesn’t have any close friends of her own. It’s a dysfunctional family and Johanna’s self-respect is in the cellar, until her brother tosses an ad for a rock critic her way and it’s off to the races, or to her first plane ride and interviews with rock stars at concerts. 

The film shows that, like any teen, she is her own worst enemy, making bad decisions on top of other decisions. Writing for a rock magazine is not her strong suit, even though Dad is a bad rock drummer. She is just too young, and the guys at the magazine know it, labeling her jail bait. Her first interview with rock star John Kite (Alfie Allen-Jojo Rabbit, Game of Thrones) is a bust because she doesn’t know what to ask. But he respectfully takes her under his wing in pleasant scenes getting to know each other. Plus, his concert is euphoric. Johanna narrates as you see her jumping with the other fans saying that rock is “where you can dance and scream and be with your own kind and where everything is possible.” She’s all in. 

But her writing isn’t edgy enough for the boys at the rock rag. Her disappointment at being rejected leads to a revelation. Time to pull out the stops. She changes her name to Dolly Wilde, wearing a signature top hat and tuxes with mini-pants and low-cut overflowing dresses with neon red hair to make a statement. As her self-confidence grows, so does her sassy attitude and sex life. It all gets so out of whack, that she makes big mistakes. Giedroyc creates graphic sex scenes with Dolly in voiceover explaining the details of her new found decadent behavior, which seems out of place.  

Johanna finally has a revelation after she has a bad reaction to her behavior by the one guy she wants to please. But the teen had to go to the extreme to come back and find her true self in this portrayal of a colorful mid-teen having an identity crisis.

Feldstein is a force to be reckoned with as an actress, and seems to relish every second, especially when she’s the popular, bad- ass rock critic prancing around in those outrageous costumes. There are some funny moments, but the means doesn’t justify the pat ending. Emma Thompson looks fabulous as another magazine editor, but is just there for a minute. Still, it’s good for teens to see others going through these anxious years, but this film may not be the best presented example.

IFC      1 hour 42 minutes       R    

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