How to Build a Girl Review
“No, I don’t think my adventure starts with a boy. I think it starts with me” muses Johanna Morrigan (brilliant Beanie Feldstein, with a dodgy British accent), our protagonist in How to Build a Girl, based on a semi-biographical novel and script by Caitlin Moran and directed by Coky Giedroyc. This is possibly the best line, one that summarises exactly what the film is about not only narratively, but also thematically. It works hard to reclaim the narrative, like so many other coming-of-age films have done (see Edge of Seventeen and Lady Bird), where a female protagonist’s crushes on boys are crucial, but never as crucial as their internal struggles and desperation to find their truest self.
Johanna lives in grey, dull Wolverhampton and we first meet her daydreaming in the local library. Johanna craves for something better than what her hometown can provide and after submitting an insightful review of the Annie soundtrack, is invited over to interview at a cool rock magazine. The staff there had a bet on the review being a joke, but Johanna, driven by her frustration, scores the gig regardless and eventually transforms herself into the assured and sexy Dolly Wilde, who soon learns that being mean sells more magazine copies than being kind.
The question at the heart of Giedroyc’s film is whether reinventing yourself is simply fulfilling your potential or just hiding underneath another mask. In Johanna’s case, it seems to be a bit of both. Dolly is everything Johanna aspires to be without actually being her; an extension of her and while Dolly's writing might be funny and occasionally true, she never represents Johanna’s true feelings. This is something most of us women can relate to, having to build up a tough-as-nails alter ego to fit in with the boys at the office or risk staying behind forever.
How to Build a Girl also deals with class, but never really digs into this. Johanna comes from a working-class family and an incident in the beginning - one of the funniest in the film - has Johanna accidentally reveal the family’s illegal dog breeding business which costs them their benefits. Thankfully Johanna is making plenty of cash thanks to her fancy new writing job and likes the family to know it. Class never becomes a main subject of the film, but there’s a sense it could have been meatier than it is since what’s there is quite powerful and guaranteed to resonate with audiences.
Feldstein's attempt at the accent is admirable but it's never quite convincing. Her Johanna beams with joy and warmth and is never afraid to laugh at herself, while remaining sexy and strong. Especially in the film’s final minutes, Feldstein appears disarmingly genuine with her words while directly addressing the audience and it feels like she’s speaking to us all individually as she gently looks at us and gives us a reassuring smile. Also tickling the funny bone just right is Paddy Considine as Johanna’s rocker dad Pat, but the seasoned actor seems to play it safe, which is fine because this is very much Feldstein’s film through and through.
Giedroyc’s direction feels effortless and all of the film's frames are filled with life and colour, especially after Johanna 'becomes' Dolly. It feels inventive if, at times, a little pretentious. While all the awkwardness of one’s teenage years is well realised here, it sometimes feels forced and eats away the film’s authenticity. Regardless, Moran’s script hits all the right notes about the search of the best version of yourself and growing from a teenage girl into a confident woman. How to Build a Girl is a painfully honest, yet always warm and inviting, portrayal of class, womanhood and finding yourself.
How to Build a Girl is available digitally on Amazon Prime July 24th
How to Build a Girl (2019)
Dir: Coky Giedroyc | Cast: Alfie Allen, Beanie Feldstein, Emma Thompson, Jameela Jamil | Writers: Caitlin Moran (based on the novel by), Caitlin Moran (screenplay), John Niven (screenplay)