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'How to Build a Girl' review: '90s Britpop drama could've been a contender

Alfie Allen  and Beanie Feldstein in "How

Alfie Allen  and Beanie Feldstein in "How to Build a Girl." Credit: IFC Films/Sven Arnstein

PLOT During the Britpop ‘90s, an awkward suburban girl transforms herself into a fearsome rock critic.

CAST Beanie Feldstein, Alfie Allen, Paddy Considine

WHEN|WHERE Video on demand and streaming on Vudu, Amazon Prime, Google Play and iTunes

RATED R (language and sexuality)


BOTTOM LINE Not even almost “Almost Famous.”

Meet Johanna Morrigan, the teenage heroine of “How to Build a Girl.” Smart and funny but overweight and insecure, Johanna (Beanie Feldstein) dreams of escaping from the blighted English suburbs to become a writer. As it happens, Johanna is growing up during the Britpop-dominated 1990s, and so she reinvents herself as a ferocious rock critic named Dolly Wilde.

“How to Build a Girl” comes by its similarities to Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” honestly. It’s based on a novel by Caitlin Moran, who like Crowe was one of the youngest critics of her era (she wrote for the New Musical Express). If anything, Moran’s story, with its added layers of gender and class, is slightly more complex and interesting. The movie version, then, has all the makings of a rock-driven, feminist coming-of-age story with a welcome dose of ‘90s nostalgia.

Amazingly, Coky Giedroyc’s film bungles the job completely. Though written by Moran, it doesn’t at all feel like an insider’s view of a vibrant time and place. Remember raves, ecstasy, track suits, “electronica” and Oasis vs. Blur? This movie doesn’t. Worse than the lack of period detail, though, is how the movie mishandles Joanna. Instead of a riot grrrl with a wicked wit, she’s a toxic attention-hog with a habit of sleeping with the coolest guy in the room.

That’s a shame, because Feldstein does her best in the role and even manages a tricky West Midlands accent. Yet the character makes no sense. Joanna knows nothing about rock, yet somehow becomes a hot new critical voice. Her supposedly striking new outfit is an embarrassment – magenta hair and a top hat – yet we’re to believe she captures the heart of sexy balladeer John Kite (Alfie Allen). Our tolerance for Johanna finally ends when she cruelly mocks her father, Pat (Paddy Considine), a failed rock drummer. By the time she realizes the error of her ways, we’re sick to death of this girl.

You can count the number of female rock artists in this movie on no hands, by the way. Talk about a missed opportunity! The worst thing about “How to Build a Girl” is thinking about how good it might have been.

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