How to Build a Girl

Movie review by
Kat Halstead, Common Sense Media
How to Build a Girl Movie Poster Image
Edgy coming-of-age comedy has mature content, sex, language.
  • R
  • 2020
  • 102 minutes

Parents say

age 18+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

age 18+
Based on 1 review

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Importance of staying true to yourself, not selling out to fit in. Themes of self-sufficiency, confidence, integrity are central. Some acts of selfishness, as well as references to weight and class.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Johanna is initially portrayed as sweet and naive, but quickly learns that sarcasm and bad behavior get her more attention. Male music journalists are seen as sexist, sometimes cruel. At home, Johanna's father is supportive but tries to leverage her success to boost his own, while her mother is dissociated and absent, which is blamed on postnatal depression.


A character is hit with a book. Instances of verbal bullying, sexual harassment in the workplace. Mention of shooting a snail with an air rifle. "Rape" is used in reference to bad music "raping the ears." Remark about being kicked in the testicles. Discussion of death of a parent, suicide, overdoses. An on-screen suicide attempt involving a compass in which small cuts are shown. A gun is shot from a building. A trash can is set alight.


Sexual intercourse is depicted on-screen numerous times -- including some nudity from behind -- as is kissing and masturbation. Same-sex kissing. Periods are mentioned and a used sanitary product shown. Talk of sexual positions, orgasms, oral sex, breasts, penises, hymens, losing virginity.


Frequent strong language includes variants of "f--k," along with "s--t," "bulls--t," "d--k," "bastard," "a--hole," "twat," "bitch," "frigging," "arse," and "bloody." Other language includes "demented," "balls," "bone," and "jail bait." Homophobic references in "lezza" and "puffy."


Main character buys things for their family when they begin to make money, but specific brands are not referenced other than a brief mention of Guinness.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Characters regularly smoke cigarettes. Alcohol -- Guinness, whiskey, beer, gin, and wine -- is consumed in bars, offices, hotel rooms, outside, at home. Characters are seen to be drunk. Mention of alcoholism and drugs.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that How to Build a Girl is an edgy teen coming-of-age comedy based on Caitlin Moran's semi-autobiographical novel about a 16-year-old girl who dreams of a career as a writer. It has tons of strong language, as well as sexual acts and references. As she journeys toward self-realization, Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein) is thrown into a world more mature than her years. Her behavior goes off the rails: She stays out on school nights, plays truant, drinks, explores her sexuality, and is rude to her parents and cruel to others in order to get ahead. Expect very frequent use of "f--k," plus scenes of simulated sex and masturbation, an on-screen suicide attempt, and a scene involving bailiffs removing possessions from the family home. Topics such as the death of a parent, suicide, alcoholism, mental health issues, and sexism are discussed in mature ways. There are also jokes at the expense of a character's weight and class, as well as homophobic language. All of that said, Johanna will be relatable to many teens, and the film includes a lot of humor to keep it light, even as its message hits home.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written bySirCharlesKills May 13, 2020
Teen, 15 years old Written byokbutwhy May 25, 2020

not the best.

the movie references sex quite a bit and there is alot of cursing. the movie itself isn't awful, it's cheesy and kinda funny. without all the sex, alc... Continue reading

What's the story?

In HOW TO BUILD A GIRL, innocent and naive 16-year-old Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein) dreams of becoming a writer. She finally gets her big shot when she applies to work on a music magazine. Desperate to flee her working-class roots and start a life in the big city, she creates a new identity as Dolly Wilde, an acid-tongued girl-about-town who doesn't care who she offends as long as her articles are a hit. Falling into a world of drinking and debauchery, she travels to review gigs and interview bands, falling in love with singer John Kite (Alfie Allen) and enjoying her new-found fame and popularity. But as she burns more and more of her old bridges and gradually discovers her new life and the "cool" people around her are not everything she expected, she must make a choice about who she really is and who she wants to be.   

Is it any good?

Transporting you back to the 1990s, this movie brings to life the monotony of the teenage experience in vast contrast to the excesses of a thriving music scene. How to Build a Girl is adapted from British writer Caitlin Moran's bestselling novel based on her own experiences as a young music journalist. It's quirky, with director Coky Giedroyc adding some fun visual touches, such as the icons on Johanna's wall -- including Sylvia Plath, Julie Andrews, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx -- coming to life to converse with the troubled teen. These enable fabulous cameo appearances from the likes of Michael Sheen and Gemma Arterton, while Emma Thompson plays Johanna's editor, Amanda.

Though her experience is extraordinary, the character of Johanna is relatable, if a little one-dimensional. American Feldstein doesn't do badly with the British regional accent. But she doesn't quite breathe the life into the character that she's managed in previous films -- notably Booksmart. However, How to Build a Girl is raw and funny in places, and the audience remains on Johanna's side, even as she turns to the dark one herself. Overall, this is a light but heartfelt coming-of-age comedy that teens will both relate to and, in some places -- possibly the wrong ones -- aspire to.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how sex is depicted in How to Build a Girl. Do you think the graphic sex talk is meant to be realistic or shocking? What's the difference? What values are imparted?

  • Discuss the teen drinking and smoking in the movie. Are they glamorized? Do the characters need to do these things to look cool? What are the consequences?

  • Discuss the strong language used in the movie. Does it seem necessary or excessive? What does it contribute to the movie?

  • Talk about how Johanna's character changes and what she learns about herself along the way. Which two people does she hurt the most, and how does she make amends? Can you think of a time when you've had to make amends for something?

Movie details

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