An underdog story of a chubby, bookish working-class English teen-ager, who infiltrates the pretentious male establishment of rock criticism, How To Build a Girl, is an easy film to enjoy in the moment, with some ideas about class, gender and growing up, to savour in after-thought. Carried by a wittily acerbic voice-over and boisterous performance by Beanie Feldstein as apprentice journalist Johanna Morrigan, the movie whisks together elements of American raunchy teen comedy, cozy English sentimentality and a girl-power message in a ingratiating package.
The premise suggests a distaff version of Almost Famous, director Cameron Crowe’s film about of a teen-aged rock critic getting close to his idols and learning some humbling and wise life lessons, but in important ways, it differs. While Crowe’s story was romantic and dreamy, How To Build a Girl, directed by Coky Giedroyc and written by popular British journalist Caitlin Moran from her own semi-autobiographical novel, is defiantly devoid of solemnity. Johanna, chubby, eyes agog, mouth agape, voracious for adult experience, is entirely lacking in friends except for dead authors. She communes with the pictures on her make-shift bedroom wall, of the Bronte sisters, Sylvia Plath, Freud and Marx, who come to life and talk to her, like Harry Potter’s Hogwarts’ portraits. (“I am blessed with a rich internal life,” she rationalizes).
Like rock and roll itself, How To Build A Girl is, something of an American-English hybrid creation. Key to the film’s commercial viability is the star role of American actress, Beanie Feldstein, an American actress who has established herself as the brash misfit, a girl version of Judd Apatow-discovered stars, Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill (who is Feldstein’s older brother.) Her first significant role was in the Rogen’s co-scripted Neighbours 2: Sorority Rising, before her supporting role in Ladybird, and most recently, Booksmart, a movie indebted Apatow’s 2007 Superbad. Feldstein’s trajectory has conformed Apatow’s own transition, over the past dozen years, from rude male adolescent comedies to girl-power movies, including Bridesmaids, Trainwreck and the TV series Girls.
Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by the Times of London’s popular feminist humour columnist, Caitlin Moran, who co-wrote the script with John Niven, the story follows the trials and eventual triumph of a gifted and irrepressible nerd, over-coming sexism, lookism, and, especially, the sense of class inferiority. The family lives in public housing. The mother is clinically depressed. Johanna’s loving but shiftless, father (Patty Considine), collects disability pension while breeding dogs on the side. And the television gets repossessed. (Suggested alternative title: Almost Shameless.)
When Johanna’s gay younger brother suggests she respond to an ad for writers for a London rock magazine, she submits a review of the Annie soundtrack: The smug editors, with their Oxbridge accents and ambisexual sneers, agree to see her for laughs, but intrigued by her talent and eccentricity, they give her a chance. Dressed up in thrift-shop hodge-podge trash glamour, Johanna transforms into rock writer, Dolly Wilde, falls in for the first rock star she meets, depressive dreamboat John Kite (Alfie Allen).
After her besotted review of her new crush almost ends her fledgling career, Johanna remakes herself into an overbearing, vitriolic critic who suggests Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder should copy Kurt Cobain’s suicide, dismisses Queen’s musical opus as “Bohemian Crapsody”, then revels in the hate mail she generates. “To evil,” she toasts herself, when she wins an “Asshole of the Year” media award. She sells out someone she cares for, belittles her family and, eventually realizes what a bad person she has become and apologizes to everyone. Johanna’s journey from fame to shame, midst a series of kooky costume changes, appropriately for her melodramatic age, is a bit of a paper-cut treated like a massacre. In any case, redemption is achieved and in late-film cameo by Emma Thomson, as a Tina Brown-like glass-ceiling breaking magazine editor, who raises Johanna from the lowly trade of insulting pop musicians to authoring a soul-searching column, entitled, of course. How to Build a Girl.
Moran’s version of feminism was born in post-punk grunge era (the soundtrack includes Bikini Kill’s Riot Grrrl anthem, Rebel Girl) and, within the movie’s accessible cute and familiar tropes, there’s a mission statement about the messy pursuit of personal freedom. An unexpectedly subversive element of How To Build A Girl, is Johanna’s enthusiasm for sex, in encounters depicted as consensual, casual and consequence-free. Yet, she’s only sixteen — a reminder that How To Build a Girl is a movie set in a different time.
© FIPRESCI 2019
How To Build A Girl. Directed by Coky Giedroyc. Screenplay by Caitlin Moran. With Beanie Feldstein, Alfie Allen, Paddy Considine, Sarah Solemani, Chris O’Dowd and Emma Thompson.