It’s 1993 in Wolverhampton, in the English Midlands. That’s their Rust Belt, only worse. Johanna Morrigan is a 16-year-old schoolgirl: smart, literary, lonely, a bit moony, more than a bit awkward. Her existential shoelaces are tied together. That doesn’t keep her from bounding up whenever she stumbles, and she stumbles a lot. “You need to just rein it in a bit,” a teacher tells her. “All teachers look for a spark. Very few [students] have it. You do. Right now, you’re like Krakatoa.”
Beanie Feldstein knows from volcanoes. Anyone who saw her rampage through “Booksmart” last year, or more than hold her own as Saoirse Ronan’s best friend in “Lady Bird” (2017), knows that. They also know that she’s American and, once they check IMDb to confirm their suspicions, a decade older than Johanna. So it’s no small tribute to Feldstein — who really is something — to say that she’s the very best thing in “How to Build a Girl” despite being so wildly miscast. Her performance is a tour de force, even if it’s too forceful for either its own good or that of the movie.
Not that Feldstein has much choice, since without her immense eyes, Bartlett pear face, and general relentlessness “How to Build” wouldn’t be much to speak of. Caitlin Moran did the adaptation of her 2014 autobiographical novel. The plot twist is that Johanna becomes a highly successful rock writer, under the nom de stiletto Dolly Wilde. This makes “How to Build” a feminized, other-side-of-the-Atlantic “Almost Famous” (2000) with feathers.
The first half of the movie can be quite funny, albeit in an uncomfortable-making way. The camera gapes at Johanna/Dolly — especially once she dyes her hair magenta and starts wearing a top hat — without ever really sympathizing with her. “You’re not Superman, you know,” her oldest brother says. “You’re just a girl in a hat typing jangly.”
The movie doesn’t sympathize with anyone, really. Nick Lowe famously sang that you have to be cruel to be kind. “How to Build” is mostly just cruel. Paddy Considine, as Johanna’s dad, does get a bit of a pass. His performance is as winningly casual as Feldstein’s is winningly avid.
The second half of the movie wobbles between sentimentality and bathos. Those immense Feldstein eyes now get put to a different purpose when a dreamboat singer-songwriter (Alfie Allen) arrives on the scene. You know what’s going to happen — which is to say not happen. You appreciate all the more the sheer forcefulness of Feldstein’s performance, since otherwise seeing the humiliations to which Johanna/Dolly is subject would be too awful rather than just awful. “I’m an unstoppable force,” she laments at one point, “yet I’m being stopped.” True enough, just don’t blame Feldstein.
HOW TO BUILD A GIRL
Directed by Coky Giedroyc. Written by Caitlin Moran, based on her novel. Starring Beanie Feldstein, Paddy Considine, Alfie Allen. Streaming on various platforms starting May 8. 104 minutes. R (sexual content, language, teen drinking).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.