Directed by Coky Giedroyc, written by Caitlin Moran based on her book of the same name, a teenager living with her working-class family on a council estate in Wolverhampton, England, grows up to become a popular but conflicted music journalist. Starring: Beanie Feldstein, Alfie Allen, Paddie Considine, Sarah Solemani, Laurie Kynaston, Frank Dillane, Joanna Scanlan, Arinze Kene, Ziggy Heath and Emma Thompson.
Having previously adapted her life to the screen with Raised by Wolves, which was unfortunately cancelled after only two series, Moran is back at it with her fourth novel, a semi-autobiographical look at her teenage years. Capturing the late 80s and early 90s of life in Wolverhampton, Beanie Feldstein likely wouldn’t have been an actress that quickly sprang to mind but she’s established her luminous talent and the filmmakers are blessed to have her in this role as it likely would have failed without her. Cut down to its basics, the film is a tale of popularity and infamy going to the head of someone previously unknown, getting a peek at fame and money at such a young age is something that not everyone can emerge from unchanged.
Feldstein as Johanna is the best of what the film has to offer, her performance is funny, emotional and perfectly captures the teenage melodramatics of a loner romantic, obsessed with fictional heroines with exceptional lives. She’s the heart and soul of this film but undoubtedly she’s got some brilliant support in the form of Johanna’s parents Pat (Considine) and Angie (Solemani), her father has a classic dreamer, reaching for the stars quality while her relationship with her mother is surprisingly poignant and touching. Solemani’s Angie is struggling with post-natal depression after unexpectedly having twins, her struggle to deal with day to day living while beneath the surface being aware of her waning relationship with her daughter is unexpectedly layered for a fairly lightweight film. Her performance is fantastic, it adds a much more humble aspect to the film which considering how far Johanna goes in being obsessed with herself, it’s sorely needed to balance things out. Alfie Allen also makes a fantastic addition as John Kite, adding a dose of honesty and kindness, alongside his role in Jojo Rabbit, he’s gradually proving himself a valuable asset in the supporting category.
The direction is interesting but it isn’t entirely something new, there are nice touches, such as the talking idols on Johanna’s wall which feels very Amélie-esque, boasting the faces of: Chris O’Dowd, Jameela Jamil, Sue Perkins, Mel Giedroyc, Michael Sheen, Gemma Arterton, Sharon Horgan and more. It does have a certain confidence and personality but unlike Raised by Wolves, it doesn’t have an inherent charm, it can be fairly arrogant and boastful. Which leads nicely into the writing and what is certainly the largest issue with the film because despite stylistically working, it’s cut down by that vein of self-obsession, while they try to redeem Johanna in the end, it’s likely going to be much too late for most viewers. There are a few much too obvious moments where they try to add in that sympathy but it’s too transparent to work. Of course, Feldstein’s acting does fight against that notion with her charm and delightful demeanour but it’s not enough to push back against the story working to make her out as fundamentally selfish and self-obsessed. There’s a tone to the film that simply feels as though Moran is using it to pat herself on the back for her early achievements, it doesn’t come across as a relatable coming of age story, it’s too busy validating itself. You can certainly see Johanna as almost an anti-hero, she’s the victim of her own high goals and young age but it spends too long pushing her in that direction to bring her back down to earth by the end, it doesn’t come across as though she’s really learned much from her selfish behaviour other than to perhaps not be so overt about it.
How to Build a Girl does have a nice message of believing in yourself and not getting lost in the search for fame and fortune, and forgetting those you love but it ironically doesn’t believe enough in its own message to really hit it home. There’s too much self-congratulation in the way that they present Johanna, so much so that while Feldstein is a great reason to watch it and gives another brilliant performance, you likely won’t feel a need to return to it anytime soon. It misses the mark entirely with its progression of the usual story of success going to a character’s head before they’re brought back down to earth by the consequences of their arrogance, they didn’t allow for a more convincing resolution to round out the film. It’s an interesting balance to strike between a character that you’re not actually trying to represent as a role model while trying to send a message through her story, it doesn’t quite work but it is still an enjoyable attempt.