Johanna Morrigan, meet Dolly Wilde.
They have little in common.
Sixteen-year-old Johanna is just your typical atypical teen from England’s Midlands in the pre-internet age of 1993: deeply unpopular, wildly dreamy, fantastically talented, hopelessly weird. Her bedroom wall is covered with pictures of her heroes—everyone from Cleopatra to Sigmund Freud to Little Women’s Jo March. They talk to her, too, and it’s probably a good thing, since few others will. Her best friend is her dog. Her closest confidante is her gay brother, who shares her bedroom. Their two spaces are divided by a makeshift wall (like Cold War Berlin, she tells us). Johanna has a knack for just two things: writing and embarrassing herself.
Meanwhile, Dolly is critic for a hip, hedonistic rock publication, and she looks it. Sporting purple-red hair and her trademark top hat, she is both fearless and feared. She drinks and smokes what she likes, sleeps with whom she pleases, and she can tear down a rising band with a well-placed adjective. No one crosses Dolly Wilde and escapes without a scar.
Yes, Johanna and Dolly are as different as different can be. Hard to believe that they’re the same person.
Or, perhaps more fairly, they were.
As Dolly Wilde pins her columns to her bedroom wall over her beloved icons, one—Maria Von Trapp from The Sound of Music—looks on with horror.
“Whatever happened to raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens?” she asks sadly.
“They don’t pay the rent,” Dolly tells Maria as she tacks another column over Maria’s face.
They say the pen is mightier than the sword. Dolly knows it well. Little did she understand what damage a little ol’ pen might do to the wielder, too.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
I’d imagine that most folks would call How to Build a Girl a coming-of-age story, and that it is. But it’s also something of a Jekyl-and-Hyde saga, too, and it comes freighted with an important moral that’s endemic to the Robert Louis Stevenson classic: When you remake yourself, take care who you become.
Johanna begins her transformation into Dolly Wilde very simply: When a popular rock magazine offers auditions to become the publication’s newest rock critic, Johanna submits an entry—her review of the song “Tomorrow” from the musical Annie. It’s as close to rock-and-roll as she’s ever gotten, and it illustrates both how hopelessly out of touch and, oddly, how achingly sincere Johanna is.
Despite her troubles (and a somewhat maudlin self-destructive bent), Johanna is an unquenchable optimist. When she does her first real interview with her first real rock star, she gushes to him about the airplane trip she took to visit him. It’s always sunny above the clouds, she says with a smile. And somewhere in the world, it’s always summer.
She’s already, technically, Dolly Wilde by then—the hat, the hair, the writing wit. But she hasn’t become (as she herself would say) evil just yet. And her subsequent walk to the dark side is, in the context of the story, meant to be a deeply cautionary tale: Johanna, on a voyage of self-discovery, loses her map, her compass and her way. And it’s only through a great deal of pain that she is able to find her path back again.
The movie affirms that change is good—if you don’t lose sight of your core and your values. For Johanna, redemption (such as it is) means honoring your roots—your family, your heroes, your working-class past—while still exploring your possibilities and expanding your world.
And we also see some strong, if wildly imperfect, support from her family—even in situations where support is really difficult to give.
John Kite, a rock star whom Johanna becomes smitten with, affectionately tells her that she’s “as mad as Jesus.” Johanna calls her hero-covered wall her “wall of gods.” She compares herself to C.S. Lewis’ metaphorical Christ figure, Aslan, though not in a spiritual sense. (She tells someone that she, like Aslan, is “on the move.”) A gospel choir sings in one of Johanna’s more internal reveries—not indicating any spiritual transcendence here, but rather the romantic/sexual kind. One of Dolly’s columns reprimands a band for dressing like “work-experience vampires.” The band Manic Street Preachers is mentioned in passing.
We should preface this section with a reminder: Johanna/Dolly is 16 years old, and she stays that way throughout the movie.
It’s not unusual for 16-year-olds to think about sex, of course—and Johanna thinks (and fantasizes) about sex a lot. Her first real goal is to “have sexual intercourse with someone who has a car,” and as she looks out the window of the school library, imaginary guys strut before her (including one in a skimpy swimsuit and another suggestively licking an ice cream cone.)
But as Johanna’s Dolly persona becomes more and more dominant, her sexual appetites turn to action. It’s suggested that she masturbates as she thinks about John Kite. She passionately kisses a man outside a club. In the next scene, announces to her brother that she’s now “post virginity” and embarking on a period of “intense sexual experimentation,” describing in detail (sometimes accompanied with visual flashbacks) what that experimentation has entailed (which includes a smattering of fetishes, sexual positions and discussions of the size of certain bits of anatomy). We see sexual movements and at least one guy’s bare bottom during her tawdry exposition of her exploits. In a game of “Never Have I Ever,” Dolly says she’s never kissed a girl—and then promptly does.
“Everyone wants a piece of Dolly Wilde,” she brags, “and God wisely made enough to go around.”
Dolly sleeps with at least one coworker, whose well aware of the teen’s age. Earlier, he tells the magazine’s editor that magazines are always improved by “jailbait” employees. Other staffers flirt and discuss whether they would have sex with Dolly, often using crass and descriptive language, even though earlier one said that she was just “a little girl.” Only one of Dolly’s would-be paramours seems to put the brakes on any relationship because of, as he calls it, “the age thing.”
Johanna’s brother, Krissi, is gay, and he sometimes discusses his own crushes with Johanna—describing one encounter he had with a fellow high-school student that involved kissing.
We see both men and women in tiny swimsuits: The closest Johanna gets to donning swimwear is when she makes herself a (fairly modest) bikini out of plastic, but her outfits reveal plenty of leg and cleavage.
When Johanna is pursued by bullies, her father sends their leader away with the knowledge that he (the father) slept with the bully’s mother back in the day. A trophy is cast in the image of someone holding and separating his buttocks. We hear lots of crass conversations around sexual acts. Johanna dreams of (among other things) visiting gay bars. A man suggestively grabs his crotch. A co-worker offers his lap to Dolly to sit on. She accepts, though the interaction doesn’t end as the coworker thought it might. We’re told that Johanna’s ample bosom “can’t be contained by a catalog bra.” There’s a reference to a dog’s sexual predilections.
When Johanna spontaneously does a tumbling routine in gym class, her classmates laugh at her when she loses her menstrual pad (which we see lying on a mat). She later scrubs the blood out of her clothes and tells one of her little brothers that, someday, he’ll get a period, too.
Dolly draws only metaphorical blood with her columns. Still, they can make you wince, such as when she writes that Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder should steal “yet another” idea from Curt Cobain—the Nirvana lead singer who died by suicide—and shoot himself. And some literal blood is spilled, too.
Dolly—horrified at what she’s become and who she’s hurt—takes a school compass and, with the pointy end, gouges deep cuts in her wrist. Before she can do too much damage, though, a dubious award she won for her writing tumbles off a shelf and onto her head, knocking her out. The next time we see her, she’s in the hospital with both her head and wrist bandaged. Her brother peers underneath the latter bandage and starts laughing—telling Johanna that it looks like she was trying to carve “U2” on her wrist. (Viewers see her injured wrist as well.) The episode later inspires Johanna to write a humor column titled, “Why 16 is the worst age for self-harm.”
Despite her inherent optimism, Johanna sports a self-destructive streak before she becomes Dolly Wilde. After embarrassing herself at school sometimes, she expresses a wish to die. (Sylvia Plath, the writer who died by suicide and one of the figures on Johanna’s wall, offers to give her suggestions.) When an English teacher asks Johanna for an essay on Anna Karenina, Johanna sums it up by saying, “Unhappy young girl throws herself in front of a train. Fair enough.”
We hear that someone’s mother committed suicide. Magazine staffers shoot albums they deem unworthy of coverage with a shotgun, chanting “Kill it!”
More than 20 f-words and three s-words. We also hear (or read) “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “crap,” “d–n,” “h—” and “d–k,” as well as more British-centric vulgarities such as “b–locks” and “bloody.” God’s name is misused three times, once with “d–n.”
When the singer John Kite first meets Dolly Wilde early in her career, he suggests “we brutalize ourselves with gin.” She orders a Coke instead. It impresses John, who also launches into a regretful rant on smoking—how the habit becomes a dragon that burns your house down.
Those habits also become signals for how far Dolly falls, morally speaking. The next time they cross paths, Dolly is smoking and drinking (remember, she’s still just 16), and often to excess with the latter.
We see her and others consume lots of various alcoholic beverages, and the desk of the music magazine’s editor is covered with bottles during a late-night party.
When the editor offers Dolly a drink—again, early in her career—she declines. “No thank-you, sir,” she says. “I’m high on life.”
A staffer, already at least slightly blitzed, says, “I ODed on life once. Someone blew life right up my a–.”
Johanna’s dad dreams of ordering a “proper pint” if he ever goes to Ireland. When Johanna returns from there on business, she carries a pint of beer in her hand (the top covered in plastic wrap). A man confesses to Dolly that his father was lost to booze (as he hoists a drink himself).
Dolly hurts plenty of people with her words, but none more so than John Kite. During their first meeting (and only official interview), John spills out some deep, dark secrets to Dolly. When they meet for a second time, Dolly’s hurt by John and decides to seek revenge by spilling all those off-the-record secrets into the music publication.
Dolly says some terrible things to her family, too (openly belittling the music of her father, a frustrated and unsuccessful musician), and in a rebellious huff she quits school—walking out on a teacher with whom she shared a deep connection.
We learn that Johanna’s dad makes a living by illegally breeding border collies—a habit that Johanna divulges on regional TV as she’s reciting a poem.
“What do you do when you build yourself, but then you realize you built yourself with the wrong things?” Johanna asks us near the end of the movie. “You rip it up and start again.”
How to Build a Girl is really a story about the joys and perils of reinvention—a process that all of us do, to some extent, when we grow up. We explore who we are and who we want to be. We weigh values. We make mistakes. Johanna’s own journey of reinvention is different from ours only by degree. If most of us ride a scooter into our own futures, Johanna somehow procured the keys to an F-15 for hers—but failed to get a pilot’s license.
But just as Johanna/Dolly is bifurcated—inconsistent morally, relationally and even with her own core nature—this movie is pretty inconsistent and wildly problematic, too. This film has moments of insight, wit and even beauty. But that goodness can be overwhelmed with all the badness in play.
This movie, as interesting and clever as it can be at times, is built from a lot of wrong things. I’d not go so far as Johanna might—to rip it up and start again. But that doesn’t mean I’d watch it again, either.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.