By Megan Cooper
Based on the (mostly) true story of Times columnist turned screenwriter Caitlin Moran, How To Build A Girl treads a familiar path of adolescent mistakes, the corrupting force of success and the paradoxical ache of wanting to be more than where you come from. Despite the brilliant one-liners on every page of the script, and the joyous performance by Beanie Feldstein (Booksmart, Ladybird), it never builds to be more than the sum of its parts.
Beanie’s Johanna Morrigan is a 16 year old girl who can write. Living in a Wolverhampton council house in the 90s that’s bursting with her family of seven, she figures she can write herself free: ‘I’m going to get out of here and become a writer.’ In a misguided and naïve move that comes to define Johanna, she applies to be a rock critic at a magazine, with a gushing review of her favourite cassette: Annie the musical. Laughed out of the office she builds herself anew as the searing critic Dolly Wilde.
It’s a story that has all the makings of being a great addition to the sub-genre of Coming-of-age films about music and/or writing. It’s a sub-genre that the film itself is aware of living up to when Johanna’s mother exclaims to the garage band that interrupts their out-of-the-carton living room takeaway that “This isn’t the friggin’ Commitments” (nothing could ever be the friggin’ Commitments). Whilst touching upon the theme that is a mainstay of this genre, of finding the balance between making something of yourself beyond your family, and losing sight of the grounding and humble love of that family, it often lacks heart and sincerity.
Quirky voiceovers and fantastical elements do much of the heavy lifting, and try in vain to uplift an otherwise flat and uninspired plot. With none of the colour, wonder and world-altering needle drops of films like Blinded By The Light, Sing Street and Almost Famous, How To Build A Girl only highlights its weaknesses.
Beanie Feldstein’s performance however is spectacular; she carries the film, and carries us with her through all her bad decisions and bad girl transformation. She understands Johanna’s desperation to be someone, whilst also wanting to help her family financially – ‘Write straight from the heart and into the bank balance’ – paying for food, then a minivan, then rent. Giving more of herself to The Dream, resulting in more money for her family, means less of that heart to write from. This performance is both a blessing and a hinderance.
Her utter watchability only reveals the mediocrity of the soundtrack (in a film about music criticism!) and writing, and overshadows other performances save Paddy Considine as her likeable and loving Dad with ambitions Johanna seems soon to surpass. Here is where the ache of wanting to do better than our parents arises for working-class teenagers, especially when a home produced record of his is sent to the magazine’s office to review.
Considine’s on-point accent reveals the one weakness of Beanie’s, with hers arriving in the vicinity of the West Midlands at best and Australian at worst. But her larger-than-life performance itself comes to represent Johanna’s own overcompensation as Dolly Wilde with bright red hair, top hat, tights, and tunnel vision.
One of director Coky Giedroyc’s strengths is in the evocation of place (an important arbiter of her success); of Johanna’s half-bedroom shared with her brother, of her house, of her council estate, and of the wonder of the capital. There’s a safety in returning to Johanna’s own space, as a comfortable touchpoint in the course of the plot, that comes to morph and epitomise her self-destructiveness. The direction on the whole however is muted and understated in a way that does no favours to the story. And ultimately, the jolting ending fails to bring these disparate elements together and reminds us more of how the film didn’t live up to its own expectations.
Image: Andrew Lih via Creative Commons