‘How to Build a Girl’ Review
British writer Caitlin Moran has adapted her own 2014 semi-autobiographical novel-memoir for the screen, because who better to write about the coming-of-age of a talented outcast than that talented outcast herself? Given the profusion of coming-of-age movies that hit the screen every year, it’s a welcome change when one takes a different approach. How to Build a Girl does just that.
Beanie Feldstein (Booksmart, and Jonah Hill’s sister) stars as Johanna Morrigan, replete with British accent. Johanna is a dreamer, and as she sits in her usual spot at the library, she fantasizes about Mr. Darcy riding in to save her from this mundane life. We quickly learn that Johanna is bright, and treated as quite the misfit at school. Even her English teacher asks her to scale back her writing assignments. See, in addition to being a world-class dreamer, Johanna is a very talented writer…and she sees that as her only means to escape Wolverhampton.
At home, Johanna has a “Wall of Gods” featuring photographs of her literary and historical heroes, including Sylvia Plath (Lucy Punch), Elizabeth Taylor (Lily Allen), Bronte sisters, Sigmund Freud (Michael Sheen), and Maria von Trapp (Gemma Arterton). Johanna speaks to these photos, and they answer her. Johanna’s family hustles to stay just above poverty. Her dad’s (Paddy Considine) dream of rock stardom has passed, and now he breeds black market Border Collies while remaining optimistic about life. Her mother (Sarah Solemani) suffers from postpartum depression after giving birth to twins (kids numbers 3 and 4).
Johanna shares a small bedroom space (divided by “the Berlin wall”) with her cool brother Krissi (Laurie Kynaston). We know he’s cool, because he hangs out in the cool room at school – a room to which Johanna has never been invited. After embarrassing herself on a televised poetry reading show (hosted by Chris O’Dowd), Johanna is encouraged by brother Krissi to apply for a music critic job at a local publication. Her heartfelt submission on “Annie” the musical causes guffawing among the ultra-cool writing staff at the magazine; yet her writing skill and persistence land her a shot. It’s at this point that things change for Johanna.
An unusual interview with popular and earnest singer John Kite (Alfie Allen, brother of singer Lily Allen and son of actor Keith Allen) results in a connection and a teenage crush, leading to a sappy article rejected by her employer. Given a second chance by the magazine, Johanna’s alter-ego Dolly Wilde does in fact turn wild. Her ‘bad girl’ image and mean-spirited critiques of bands gain her a cult following – a type of notoriety. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but when the pen is used as a sword, the damage is severe. What follows, of course, are the inevitable hard (and painful) life lessons.
Director Coky Giedroyc has spent most of her career on TV shows, but she has a feel for this material. However, it’s mostly the no-holds-barred performance of Beanie Feldstein that makes this work – both the comedy and drama. We’ve seen the outsider with talent many times before, and because of that, expectations are a bit low going in. This time, a different twist and passionate filmmakers and actors turn this into quite an entertaining 100 minutes.
How to Build a Girl is available on Amazon Prime.