I first saw How to Build a Better Boy in 2021. It’s a nice combination of a few DCOM staples — sci-fi, high school crushes, academic overachieving. The film was written by Jason Mayland and directed by Paul Hoen. Best friends Gabby (China Anne McClain) and Mae (Kelli Berglund) are at the top of their class, but Mae wants more. She’s desperate for a guy who truly cares about her, and she wants this dream man to take her to Homecoming. With the festive football game and dance, this is a nice movie to watch around this time of year (late September/early October). China McClain told Yahoo! TV in 2014, “I loved Disney Channel original movies growing up. Of course, one of my favorites was the classic High School Musical. Another favorite of mine was Pixel Perfect. It is very cool being able to star in a DCOM. I think they are so popular because they are all feel-good movies and made with the intention to make people happy.” Kelli Berglund echoed those sentiments and added, “I’ve definitely thought to myself, ‘This movie could go down in Disney history like Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century or High School Musical.’ There’s something about DCOMs that everyone loves; maybe it’s the relatable characters, fun storylines, or catchy songs that no one can seem to get out of their heads. No matter what, they all have one thing in common: They send a great message, and I think How to Build a Better Boy does exactly that.”
The scientific plot involves Mae’s father secretly cooperating with the government to build a robotic soldier. All the kids think he develops video games for a living. Gabby has studied video game software at coder camp, so she helps her friend design the perfect virtual boyfriend. You see, Mae was scorned at school by a young Noah Centineo, who is truly a fool for entertaining a mean girl’s advances. She pulled a Jan Brady in front of the popular kids and came up with her own personal George Glass, an imaginary boyfriend. So now she wants to save face and produce at least a digital love interest.
In her room with her best friend Gabby, Mae starts thinking about what constitutes her dream guy. She begins with physical characteristics, settling on blonde hair and blue eyes. “And even though he’s super cute, he doesn’t know it,” Mae says. She adds, “He would be super polite, like almost Canadian. He would be sensitive and brave, and with just one look, he would know exactly how I feel. … I wouldn’t have to guess what he’s thinking all the time. He would just tell me.” The list goes on, including Mae’s hopes of a perfect Homecoming dance with her date. She wants her spotlight moment and her kiss that she’ll remember forever. This is giving me Taylor Swift “Fifteen” vibes.
All this is very specific for a boyfriend who is supposed to be strictly virtual, but the wish list is also something I think many viewers can empathize with. Even if we don’t all write out a description of our perfect person, the desire to be loved and understood seems almost universal. And as it turns out, this boy is being cooked up in a lab, and his name is Albert. The rest of the movie displays Albert and Mae as an item, sharing sweet moments together and singing a cover of Selena Gomez’s “I Love You Like a Love Song.” Albert rules the school, and Mae thinks she and this robot are really meant to be.
Gabby is the one who discovers that Mae’s dad works for the Pentagon and was developing a prototype for a soldier. A gaggle of villains planned to steal Albert the Weapon, and they’ve been hiding out in a cleaners’ van (reminds me of Harry and Marv in the Oh-Kay plumber van). Gabby works with Mae’s brother Bart to try to save the day, but Albert is going to carry out his mission to give Mae the Homecoming dance of her dreams no matter what. He’s flanked by Mae’s dad and a bunch of other government people. “You didn’t want a high-tech war machine, just a boy toy,” a very Southern general tells Mae. All these military officials cooperate with the mission, helping to decorate the dance and set the mood exactly as she’d hoped. I know that’s a lot to digest, but the point is, Mae gets her dance and is crowned Homecoming Queen. Albert has completed the mission (all in a day’s work for a guy who saves the world, helps freedom fighters, builds schools, and more), so Mae tells him to self-destruct. A robot boyfriend is not forever, in this case. Mae restores her friendship with Gabby, gives Jaden (Noah Centineo) another chance, and sees Gabby and Bart get together. I’d like to note that this movie came out not long after Zapped, Zendaya’s boy-control DCOM. Lots of phones, lots of boys in the 2010s.