Writer Caitlin Moran has been putting her sharp, caustic wit to good use for years now, be it in the broadsheets or on the TV. Her semi-biographical novel, How To Build A Girl is just another extension of her already impressive career. The film it is based on, also written by Moran is peppered with the same quick, honest humour people have come to expect but its Coky Giedroyc’s self-assured direction and an intentionally messy performance by Beanie Feldstein, coming off the success of Booksmart, that makes an already impressive script come to life.
Growing up in Wolverhampton, Johanna Morrigan (Feldstein) spends her time dreaming not only of a future as a writer but also of the men she will meet, things she will do with the future of fame she knows she will have, like only a naively optimistic 16-year-old can. When she sees an opportunity to become a rock critic even though she knows nothing about rock music, it opens a door to not just a new world but a new Johanna who decides to start her new life under the name ‘Dolly Wilde, leaving the many parts of Johanna behind, perhaps even the good ones.
While you can boil How to Build A Girl down to a simple coming of age story akin to last years Blinded By The Light, replacing musical numbers with talking photos of inspirational people from the Bronte sisters to Sigmund Freud, Moran makes Johanna’s journey intentional directionless, the motions of a teenager unsure of who she is but willing to try anything to find her way. Oftentimes moving sideways instead of up, this story of improbable success is never really interested in it. Giedroyc frames the notion of wonder on a sliding scale. Early moments of self-discovery seem like everything but the more jaded Johanna and her story gets the dingier the surroundings and cinematography becomes.
Giedroyc tells Moran’s story through a lens of cool with Joanna constantly striving to be in the crowd that matters not realising that its that desperate need for acceptance that strips her of her coolness. Her progressively more outlandish costumes, while unique never really feel like her and Giedroyc smartly makes Johanna the punchline as she goes down the rabbit hole of fame and faux acceptance. Feldstein accepts this constantly shifting, frequently problematic teenager by zeroing in on her voice, not the accent which is just off the mark but not unpleasantly so, but the inner voice, one that is vastly more intelligent and buoyant than the so-called ‘writers’ she surrounds herself with.
Family-friendly and vibrant, Johanna’s clan is as much a part of her personality, something made clear by her childish, romantic father Pat (Paddy Considine), an exploitative but larger than life presence, made so by Considine’s affinity for physical comedy. Even the addition of unattainable love interest John Kite (Alfie Allen), the most wholesome rockstar committed to film perhaps, seems intent on highlighting how far you can fall in search of yourself. Johanna’s cringe-worthy actions are not only a breath of fresh air but a welcome distraction from her own self-destruction.
Moran, for all her smart punchlines and review worthy but offensive critiques, understands Johanna like only someone writing from experience can. Her moments of joy and idiotic mistakes feel lived in and authentic with the more fantastic elements seeming like unnecessary icing on top of an already filling cake. While its nice to know she is a daydreamer, an idealist and someone too often listening to the voice of others to find direction, it feels like one step too far in the creation of a character that prospers more from ruthless reality, not the escape her wall of wonders provides.
While occasionally lost in the fantasy of the story it is telling, this is a highly caffeinated picture of what it’s like to be young and desperate for the knowledge of where to go next, who to be next and how to get there. Lately, that seems to be more prescient than usual and while despite the timely nature of Giedroyc’s film and Moran’s story, How To Build A Girl should still prove bright family viewing for years to come.