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“What do you do when you build yourself, only to realise that you built yourself with the wrong things?” That’s the question at the heart of this entertainingly ramshackle coming-of-age story, adapted by screenwriter Caitlin Moran from her autobiographically inspired bestseller. The story of a working-class Wolverhampton teenager who lands a job writing for the London music press, it’s a cautionary yet empowering tale about following your dreams, even when they turn into nightmares. At its centre is an irrepressible soul who learns to her cost that spiteful criticism is easier to sell than honest enthusiasm. It’s a theme that will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever experienced the empty thrill of a vicious put-down, or been ridiculed for simply loving something without reservation.
Beanie Feldstein, who did such sterling work in Lady Bird and Booksmart, is Johanna Morrigan, a studious mid-90s schoolgirl whose heroes (the Brontë sisters, Freud, Maria von Trapp, Sylvia Plath) speak to her from pictures on her bedroom wall. Bullied by book-throwing boys in the park, and ostracised by the “cool” crowd at school, Johanna is bursting with a creative energy that both impresses and exasperates her teachers. Answering a call for hip young gunslingers, she heads to London for an interview at the punningly-named music paper “D&ME”, where she learns that an unbridled passion for the Annie soundtrack isn’t what the edgy rock press want.
So, armed with less than tenner’s worth of hair colouring and accoutrements, Johanna reinvents herself as bad girl Dolly Wilde, a top-hat wearing whirlwind who wins awards for telling pop stars to follow Kurt Cobain’s example and shoot themselves – albeit with a searing wit that none of her colleagues can match.
Directed by Coky Giedroyc (who made Stella Does Tricks and Women Talking Dirty), How to Build a Girl has a rough-and-ready energy that’s hard to resist, even during its creakier moments of narrative contrivance. At times I was reminded of Gurinder Chadha’s underrated Blinded By the Light, another semi-autobiographical picture (adapted by Sarfraz Manzoor from his own memoir), which sprinkled its streetwise tale with elements of ecstatic musical fantasia. There’s a similar magic at work here, not least in a lovely scene where pop idol John Kite (Alfie Allen) steps out of a bus shelter poster to walk Johanna/Dolly home through the rain, glowing like a matinee idol.
“Have you ever read On the Road?” asks Björk (Patsy Ferran) from a picture on a toilet wall, as Johanna hides under a sink (a recurrent cowering trope). “Don’t bother – it’s a very long book about a man getting a lift.” Instead, she recommends Little House on the Prairie, because “she makes her own knickers and her dad shoots a bear. That’s a story!” This, of course, is vintage Moran, mixing erudition with comic deflation to quotably laugh-out-loud effect.
It’s a credit to Feldstein that the wobbliness of her Wolverhampton accent never comes between us and her character. Instead, we simply get on board with her adventures, accepting her for what she is – however odd that may sometimes sound. There are top supporting turns too from Paddy Considine as Johanna’s wannabe rock star dad, and Sarah Solemani as her mum, wrestling postnatal depression and exhaustion, but still strangely indomitable.
It seems particularly poignant that How to Build a Girl is opening in the UK the same week that Q magazine announced it was closing – another victim of coronavirus chaos. For all its flaws, the UK music press offered a way in for writers who (like Moran) would go on to become “voices of their generation”. Perhaps somewhere, a teenager watching this boisterous romp will get the same boost from its rip-it-up-and-start-again message. Heaven knows we could all use a bit of positive reinvention right now.
• How to Build a Girl is on Amazon Prime
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: How to Build a Girl review – enjoyably rough-and-ready | Comedy films