By Leah Greenblatt
May 08, 2020 at 05:05 PM EDT
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There's never a good time to be a teenager, maybe, but 2020 must certainly be some kind of nadir. In a moment when so many rites of passage — the proms and parties, team sports and social ceremonies — have suddenly been snatched from uncountable students across the globe, it's nearly impossible to say when anything like normalcy will return.

So there can be a strange sort of comfort in watching it all unfold again on screen, even in a relative trifle like How to Build a Girl (on VOD May 8), starring Beanie Feldstein as the book-smart but boy-ignorant Johanna Korrigan, 16 and dreaming of escape from England's drab hinterlands. "I want to burn," she wails to the cutout idols pasted on her bedroom wall. "I want to explode! I want to have sexual intercourse with someone who has a car."

What she does instead is immerse herself in the Britpop scene of the early '90s, change her name to Dolly Wilde, and start wearing fishnets and top hats to homeroom. (How she manages to land a job freelancing at a London music magazine might seem like the kind of plot twist you only see in cinematic dreams — except that it actually happened to novelist-turned-screenwriter Caitlin Moran, on whose own life story the script is loosely based.)

IFC Films

Being the cool girl with the cruel byline, though, turns out to have a nasty boomerang effect, especially when Dolly starts believing in her own hype. Her new identity as the pen-wielding assassin of indie-rock mediocrity impels her to stay silent when her much older, universally male co-workers mock a group of rock-star hopefuls whose ranks include her own middle-aged father (Paddy Considine, always great) — and even when they address her, too, less as a human being than as a sort of tipsy cartoon mascot.

Insecurity also leads her to make questionable choices with John Kite (Game of Thrones' Alfie Allen), the pensive, unusually sensitive singer-songwriter who becomes the subject of her first major profile, and possibly one of her only real friends in the business — though her new persona does impress the editor of a major metropolitan newspaper (a bemused Emma Thompson) enough to land her a recurring girl-about-town column in print.

It's clear that director Coky Giedroyc (best known for TV shows like Harlots and The Hour) has a real sense for the oversized emotions of adolescence — to the point that she often channels it literally into a sort of kooky magical realism. Watching the pinned-up photos on Johanna's wall periodically come alive mostly seems like a winking excuse for celebrity-friend cameos (Lily Allen as Elizabeth Taylor, Jameela Jamil as Cleopatra) and the movie's frequent tonal swings between that kind of surreal whimsy and all-out melancholy often just register as whiplash.

Still, there's a sort of willful energy field between Giedroyc and Feldstein that pushes the story along; the blithe, anything-can-happen thrill that comes from being young in a world where anything is possible — including the right to wreck yourself spectacularly, rebuild, and then start it all over again. B

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