How to Build a Girl
Time Out says
Caitlin Moran’s bestseller comes to the screen as a sparky but fitful coming-of-age comedy
Growing up is hard to do, especially when you’re friendless, skint and sharing a bedroom with your brother in a crowded council house in Wolverhampton. This is where we find 16-year-old Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein) in this warm-hearted coming-of-age comedy. Whipsmart and dreamy, Johanna has read every book in her local library in an attempt to escape her West Midlands surroundings and turns to pictures of her heroes – Julie Andrews, Sylvia Plath, Jo March – who come to life on her wall, for advice.
The film is adapted from journalist and author Caitlin Moran’s 2014 semi-autobiographical bestseller, and Johanna is loosely based on Moran’s own teenage self. That much-craved escape comes when she’s plucked from regional obscurity and flung into the macho, hedonistic world of ’90s music journalism after sending in an eccentric review of the ‘Annie’ soundtrack to the ultracool Disc & Music Echo (or D&ME).
Overnight, Johanna reinvents herself as the red-haired, Doc Martens-wearing journo Dolly Wilde, who navigates the classism and sexism thrown at her by ‘crossing over to the dark side’. Her scornful, scathing alter ego begins spewing out acerbic reviews and revelling in her newfound decadent lifestyle, estranging her family in the process.
Adapted by Moran herself, the film retains the book’s insightful naughtiness, subtle period details and fizzing one-liners. Johanna’s put-down to her snobbish, Oxford-educated lover: ‘I'm not your bit of rough, you’re my bit of posh’, is straight from the mouth of Moran. While an excellent scene where Johanna scrubs period blood out of her school uniform in the bathroom sink exclaiming, ‘This is why women have been oppressed!’ could be lifted from Moran’s feminist manifesto How to Be a Woman.
No stranger to a tale of teenage self-development after her roles in Ladybird and Booksmart, Feldstein (despite a patchy Midlands accent) is completely captivating, buoyantly carrying us along on her journey of self-discovery. Hubert Taczanowski’s cinematography, which is full of falling confetti and spangly spotlights when Johanna kisses her frontman crush John Kite (Alfie Allen), is straight out of a teenage dream.
Despite this, the story feels filleted. Under Coky Giedroyc’s direction, the pacing keeps up with Johanna’s party-hard lifestyle but misses some of the more poignant aspects of her emotional growth. Her relationship with her drained mum who is suffering from postpartum depression (played with quiet nuance by Sarah Solemani) feels unexplored, as does the friction between Johanna and her father (a cheeky Paddy Considine), whose own hopes of escaping Wolverhampton as a musician were dashed in the ’70s. Johanna’s experience of entitled gatekeeping and misogyny as she embarks on a career in journalism also slips through the fingers of scrutiny and the story feels tame compared to its literary origins, which are filled with visceral masturbation and blistering profanities.
The film may fail to probe many of the issues thrown up following a working-class girl trying to break into a privileged world, but it only goes to show that cinema could certainly benefit from the presence of more plus-sized, funny, working-class, feminist girls like Johanna.
Available to watch in the UK on Amazon Prime now.
Cast and crew