REVIEW: “HOW TO BUILD A GIRL” (2020) IFC Films

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Teenage girl Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein) is a talented copywriter and not popular at all in her school. At home, Johanna has a “Wall of Gods” featuring photographs of her literary and historical heroes, including: Sylvia Plath (Lucy Punch), Elizabeth Taylor (Lily Allen), The Bronte sisters, Sigmund Freud (Michael Sheen), and Maria von Trapp (Gemma Arterton). Johanna speaks to these photos, and the fact that they answer her makes for some early fun. Johanna’s family hustles to stay just above poverty. Her dad, Pat Morrigan (Paddy Considine), still has dreams of rock stardom even though they have long passed, and now he breeds black market Border Collies. Her mother Angie (Sarah Solemani) suffers from post-partem depression after giving birth to unexpected and unprepared for twins.

 

After winning a local TV spot as student poet (in a quick turn as a show host is Chris O’Dowd) turns mortifying, Johanna’s brother Krissi (Laurie Kynaston) suggests she audition for a London magazine’s opening as music critic. She unironically writes up a piece on the soundtrack to Broadway’s “Annie”—which nabs her an interview, but only as a joke. Undeterred, she overwhelms the smarmy hipster editor (Frank Dillane) into an assignment and gets the full fledged opportunity to work for a rock magazine.  They however are less than impressed when she writes what is essentially a teenage love crush fluff piece on her first big interview piece about musician John Kite (Alfie Allen) and she gets the hatchet.

With that Johanna decides to sharpen her claws and it’s here where, low and behold, she does a complete reinvention of herself and evolves into persona ‘Dolly Wilde’. It’s no surprise that Dolly’s hatchet jobs become a cause-celebre’ hit. Celebrating the idea of “A nice girl gets nowhere, but a bitch… A bitch can make a comeback,” she gradually rises to become the most hated person in the industry including winning ‘Asshole of the Year’ journalism award.

Performance wise, sometimes it’s left to ponder who Considine’s representation is as he can be fantastic actor, but at times picks roles where he fails to bring any expectation to the character he’s playing. Feldstein, being American, has a somewhat thick British accent here and aside from a few struggles with said accent, commands your attention at all angles. There are times when even though you don’t really believe she is fully pulling the character off – you still root for her – follow her – even if her figure character becomes almost unbearable in between. Nevertheless, Johanna has her heart in the right place and so this comedy is quite a decent affair – and not only for girls. That’ll help you miss some of the weaker elements. Minor characters are allowed little opportunity to develop and the story feels boiled down to the most obvious plot points. There is nothing superficial about Johanna, but the film itself fails to dive far enough beneath the surface to do her justice.

While the film doesn’t work perfectly Director Coky Giedroyc does a perfectly acceptable job of making it a fine watch. I do hope to see Feldstein break out of this typecasting of roles and move towards ones that she can really sink her teeth into. All in all “How to Build a Girl” is more of a cutsey, fun watch than maybe the book by Caitlin Moran was meant to be as Moran’s audacious humor sometimes feels muted. There is also something quite fun as well in a film that decides it is up to every girl to build and/or rebuild herself in any images she so chooses.

Grade: C+
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Media Review link courtesy of IFC Films

“HOW TO BUILD A GIRL” hits select drive-in theaters and VOD on Friday, May 8, 2020

REVIEW: “BOOKSMART” (2019) Annapurna Pictures

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Every decade comes with its own teen movies.  ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’, ‘Clueless’, ‘Superbad’ or any and all of John Hughes films can be par for the course of this genre.  Most are fun and years later you can give them a watch as a reminder of fun moments in life.

“BOOKSMART” might be another one that some will no doubt, add to their list.  Early word of mouth was mostly positive so going in early also and fully expecting to enjoy it, I was dismayed when the film was making “Funny, huh? Wasn’t that funny?!?” noises despite nothing particularly funny happening. Olivia Wilde gets points here though, for making a very colorful and energetic movie that might indeed convince a lot of people through sheer high spirits that it’s a great comedy. But instead it felt just strenuous to me, trying too hard to cover the fact that the funny, clever, witty material you found in all those John Hughes films, wasn’t actually there.

The premise is while some might find ridiculous, can actually happen. Two bookworm protagonists Molly (Beanie Feldstein) & Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), are horrified to discover that after all their sacrifices for the future, all the party-hearty types at their high school ALSO got into Ivy League schools. This would make sense if it took place in a wealthy community where everyone was a “legacy” student thanks for their family’s donations. But the movie makes a point of singling out two characters as the only “truly rich” ones here. Those two, Nick (Mason Gooding) & Gigi (Billie Lourd), like every character save the two lead girls, are complete “SNL”-style caricatures. What’s worse, they all also seem to be played by actors who are about a decade too old, once again apart from the two lead girls.  Add in the trying to be cool character Principal Brown (Jason Sudeikis), who side-lines as a Uber driver role, the crazy girl Triple A (Molly Gordon), who actually is one of the few that brings along the laughs, the poor rich kid with no friends and has to buy them routine character Jared (Skyler Gisondo), and wrap it all up with the lonely oddball teacher Miss Fine (Jessica Williams), (who’s name can explain the entire character to you) that ends up at a school party and sleeps with the over-aged 19 yr old senior student Theo (Eduardo Franco) that really is just weird and oh-so-wrong!

Even so, the premise and the casting and everything might have worked if “Booksmart” were an outright farce. But it seems to be aiming to be sorta-kinda “real,” while the characters nonetheless behave like no teenagers past or present. Everything here is so over-amped and contrived for effect, yet the ingenious comedy situations and bright lines that approach might have served are nowhere to be found.

While it’s can be very lively and somewhat well-crafted movie, it nonetheless felt completely phony and unfunny for the most part.  It’s not boring, but I have no idea what people who like it are responding to, beyond the fact that its being lauded as the “‘Superbad’ for high school senior girls” which is probably good enough for many, though it should be aiming for more.  You could say it tries for a mix of “Superbad” and John Hughes, but those movies do a much better job turning recognizable teenage life into farce with some heart, and if Wilde intended something similar, on the whole she misses the mark.

‘A’ for effort, in the ‘C+’ average range for derivative/uninspired content and it’s no brilliantly put together film like last years brilliant ‘Eighth Grade’ .  It’s like a student paper with a very splashy cover but nothing original or thoughtful inside.

Grade: C+                                                                                                                                                      @pegsatthemovies

 

Review Screening: Tuesday, May 7, 2019 ~ Courtesy of LAFTV Film group                  ‘BOOKSMART’ IS NOW PLAYING NATIONWIDE//WORLDWIDE RELEASE FOLLOWING