How To Build a Girl, 2019.
Directed by Coky Giedroyc.
Starring Beanie Feldstein, Alfie Allen, Paddy Considine, Sarah Solemani, Frank Dillane, Laurie Kynaston, Joanna Scanlan, Chris O’Dowd, Emma Thompson, Michael Sheen, Jameela Jamil, Lucy Punch, Lily Allen, Gemma Arterton, Sharon Horgan, Mel Giedroyc, Sue Perkins, Andi Oliver and Bob Mortimer.
A teenage girl from a Midlands council estate becomes a music critic for a major publication, reinventing herself as an acid-tongued columnist.
Every arts critic knows the dopamine rush of writing a vicious review. Nobody wants to dislike a movie or a book or an album, but the writing of a negative review feels like a catharsis – a way to exorcise the bad art from your brain while flexing your writing muscles. So it’s no surprise that the central character of the sprightly new coming-of-age drama How To Build a Girl effectively undergoes a personal metamorphosis when she learns the power of the poisonous pen and begins scything through the world of music with her typewriter dripping metaphorical blood.
But let’s back-track a little. Based on the semi-autobiographical 2014 novel by journalist Caitlin Moran, the film follows 16-year-old Johanna (Booksmart standout Beanie Feldstein) as she grows up in a crowded house on a council estate in Wolverhampton. When she inadvertently exposes her dad’s (Paddy Considine) illegal dog breeding business, she decides to get a job to keep the family afloat. She submits a review to trendy music mag D&ME and, after they stop laughing, they send her off to a gig in Digbeth – very much the jewel of crappy Birmingham districts – to prove herself.
Feldstein is an interesting choice for the lead role here. There’s no doubting her luminous charisma and exceptional comic ability, but the difficult Black Country accent largely eludes her and so she never seems entirely comfortable in the skin of the protagonist. However, there’s a joy in how she portrays the character’s shift from Johanna to her writing persona of Dolly Wilde. When she submits an overly fawning profile of soulful heart-breaker John Kite (Alfie Allen), Dolly is almost sacked for good, until she turns her attentions to slaughtering sacred cows with gleeful venom. “Bohemian Crapsody” is one of her more choice headlines.
One of the joys of How To Build a Girl is that Johanna’s shift into Dolly feels entirely organic as she tries to find her place in the world, away from the societal confines of her upbringing. Feldstein excels as a woman who blunders in with sheer enthusiasm to everything in the hope of being understood and appreciated, exploring herself creatively, sexually and personally, for good and for ill. She’s a character who could cross over into being unlikable, but Feldstein’s innate relatability is deployed to great effect. Even when her behaviour is tough to justify, there’s a twinkle in her eye that reveals the ultra-earnest teenage girl beneath the persona.
The film also benefits from an incredible supporting cast. Considine’s brilliant work as Johanna’s father is the obvious standout, but Frank Dillane also shimmers as a slimy co-worker with questionable romantic feelings for Johanna. There’s also a cavalcade of cameos in the form of a shrine to famous women on Johanna’s bedroom wall, including Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc as two of the Brontë sisters, Gemma Arterton as Maria Von Trapp and Sharon Horgan as Jo March from Little Women. Chris O’Dowd and Joanna Scanlan also get eye-catching appearances as, respectively, the presenter of the charmingly parochial TV show “Today in the Midlands” and Johanna’s long-suffering teacher.
There’s something, though, that’s a little loose and ill-disciplined about the movie. Moran’s script, helmed by telly veteran Coky Giedroyc, is a little ramshackle and messy, evidently attempting to pack in a tonne of incident while maintaining the clothing of a light, frothy comedy. Its most obvious bedfellow is the freewheeling 2000 classic Almost Famous and this movie lacks the exquisite sense of place that kept Cameron Crowe’s madly overlong film afloat. Moran also provides a rather corny coda in which Feldstein directly addresses the audience, making explicit an idea the movie had already communicated admirably.
But none of that prevents How To Build a Girl from being a charming, light-footed comedy about the awkwardness of being a teenage girl – especially of a creative bent. Feldstein’s charming performance overcomes her wobbly West Midlands accent and the revolving door of supporting cameos provides plenty of fun amid the rather rickety storyline. If nothing else, the pun work on Dolly Wilde’s negative reviews is simply a delight to behold. “Bohemian Crapsody” is just the tip of an enjoyably petty iceberg.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.