How to Build a Girl (2019)
Director: Coky Giedroyc
Screenwriter: Caitlin Moran
Starring: Beanie Feldstein, Alfie Allen, Cleo, Dónal Finn, Paddy Considine
How do you build a girl? You plonk her on a flight to the UK and put her to work in a Wolverhampton gift shop for three weeks. At least, that’s how Californian ray of sunshine Beanie Feldstein built the sixteen-year-old, vivacious gunslinger, Johanna Morrigan.
Based on Caitlin Moran’s best-selling, semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, Coky Giedroyc’s How to Build a Girl follows Johanna, a friendless, young booklover, growing up on a Wolverhampton council estate with her rowdy family of Brummie oddballs (led sensationally by Paddy Considine). Desperate for change, Johanna finds a newspaper job ad calling out for hip young writers and pens a review of the “Annie” soundtrack. After some initial teasing, owning to her startling wide-eyed stare and offbeat personality, she manages to land herself a job writing music reviews for the fictitious music mag, D&ME.
With her new job, Johanna becomes the family’s primary provider. Now able to pay rent and treat her family to a chippy tea, her cherry-red head starts to inflate and she begins to view herself as something of a rock critic prodigy. That is, until her gooey-eyed feature on John Kite (Alfie Allen), a sad-eyed, Welsh musician with whom she shares a magical bond, results in her upper-class, all-male colleagues casting her off as nothing more than an excitable teenage hack. Typical behaviour from the male gatekeepers of pop culture, who continue to turn a deaf ear to the valid opinions of adolescent girls, even though they have continuously proven to have their finger on the pulse when it comes to the next big thing—just look at the young female faces in the early crowds screaming for Timothée Chalamet, One Direction, or even The Beatles. Determined to continue on her path towards greatness, Johanna takes a nastier approach to criticism, reinventing herself as Dolly Wilde, whose cutting reviews earn her the accolade ‘Arsehole of The Year’ at a flashy music award show. Wilde’s catty commentary earns her an abundance of success and popularity, but it isn’t long before Johanna begins to struggle with who she has become.
How to Build a Girl speaks to the dauntlessness of a teenage imagination, and takes shape as a story of identity, sexual discovery and daring to dream beyond the limitations of your postcode. After years of roaming the moistureless desert of ‘boy meets girl and changes her life forever’ narratives, Johanna’s plucky ‘I’m doing it on my own’ attitude feels like a long, ice-cold drink. With exceptional one-liners such as “Don’t you know who I thought I was six weeks ago?”, or “I love doors, they make the outside stop”, Caitlin Moran and John Niven’s amusing script gives Johanna a peculiar uniqueness, meaning that she is easy to find both funny and likeable even when she is at her most insufferable.
As for Feldstein, who reinvented the standard of a typical on-screen teenage girl with her roles as Julie in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and Molly in Oliva Wilde’s Booksmart, she makes up the very heart and soul of the film. Aside from a few wobbly moments with her Wolverhampton accent, Feldstein delivers a pitch-perfect British teenager existing on the outskirts of popularity and rational thought. Feldstein manages to inject loveable kookiness into Johanna, most recognisable when we see her carry a pint of Guinness all the way home from Dublin for her Dad, or eat a jar of jam while hiding under her bed. At times, it seems Feldstein’s performance outshines the very film itself, with the tired Britcom tropes of the narrative more often than not failing to catch up with Beanie’s exuberant personality and Hollywood professionalism.
While there is more good than bad in How to Build a Girl, certain fanciful elements make many scenes fall flat. On Johanna’s bedroom wall hang countless photographs and posters of her favourite writers and inspirations, which often animate when Johanna requires some advice. Played by numerous iconic British comedy stars and TV personalities – there’s Martin Sheen as Sigmund Freud, Mel and Sue as Charlotte and Emily Bronte and Alexie Sayle as Karl Marx, to name but a few – the characters bicker with one another while they offer Johanna comically outdated advice on anything from orgasms and boys to success and kindness, each conversation as ludicrous as the next. While it’s something of a shock to the system to witness a thriving American actress like Beanie Feldstein interact with much-loved Bake Off hosts, Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, these moments often feel like overdone clichés, more fitting of an early Harry Potter movie than a modern take on a ‘coming of age’ film.
A moment in which Johanna sees her celeb crush, John Kite, step out of a bus advertisement to walk her home in the rain is meant to capture the powerful imagination of a teenage mind in love, but is actually just distracting and ill-fitting with the overall tone of the film. For such an adventurous movie, it’s disappointing that Giedroyc so often tries to stuff Johanna in a box filled with overworked gimmicks more synonymous with British comedy sitcoms. Another direct result of this fantasia is that the film’s potent messages concerning feminism and the disadvantages of the working class start to feel watered down. Sexism and classism become issues that can be laughed off through witty comebacks, semi-serious emotive speeches and a series of cheeky winks.
The film works best when it allows Johanna to take off her top hat and enjoy a brief break from her performative, cringe-inducing sass routine. When she gets the time to steal a moment to talk about boys with her overtired Mum, affectionately bicker with her brother or have a deep late-night conversation about life with John Kite, the message of the film shines through. It is entirely possible to build a girl, and equally as possible to tear down the pieces and start again from scratch if you dislike what you have created.
But how exactly do you build a girl? Well, the answer you’ll find is exceptionally straightforward.
You don’t; a girl builds herself.