Dir: Coky Giedroyc. Starring: Beanie Feldstein, Paddy Considine, Sarah Solemani, Alfie Allen, Emma Thompson. 15 cert, 104 mins.
Those who are young and running headfirst into the future tend to see the world without walls. It’s a feeling so sweetly captured in the luminous expressions of How To Build A Girl’s Beanie Feldstein, known for the plucky teens she played in Lady Bird (2017) and Booksmart (2019). This is a film woozy with the natural highs of adolescence – celebrity crushes, mosh pits, unpalatably bold fashion choices.
In reality, Feldstein is 27. She’s off next to play Monica Lewinsky on TV and film the first chunk of Richard Linklater’s Merrily We Roll Along which, a la Boyhood, will shoot intermittently over the next two decades. How to Build a Girl, then, may mark the closing chapter of her onscreen coming of age. And, though the material never quite matches up to her talent, it’s a welcome reminder of how much she’s come to shape the image of teen girlhood in modern cinema.
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She plays Johanna Morrigan, a surrogate for writer and journalist Caitlin Moran, who wrote 2014’s How to Build a Girl as a fictionalised account of her experiences as an embryonic music journalist in the early Nineties. Johanna is 16, living in Wolverhampton with her four brothers, a father (Paddy Considine) still daydreaming of rock stardom, and a mother (Sarah Solemani) hollowed out by postpartum depression.
A disastrous appearance on local TV crushes Johanna’s literary ambitions. So, she finds a different lane – the D&ME (a spin on the NME) has put out a call for young critics. The magazine’s staff of haughty, male poshos assume her review of the musical Annie is some kind of prank. It isn’t. The writing’s funny, at least, so they give her a chance.
Under the pen name Dolly Wilde, Johanna reinvents herself as a flame-haired flambeuse in a top hat and corset (the fact she looks ready for an am-dram production of The Greatest Showman is neither here nor there). When her swoony, dewy-eyed profile of Irish crooner John Kite (Alfie Allen, perfectly sweet and sensitive) is roundly mocked by her editors, she turns to critical savagery. But declaring “Eddie Vedder should do another ripoff of Kurt Cobain and just kill himself” has its obvious consequences. A moral rot starts to set in.
Moran, the film’s screenwriter, has sanitised her own book. Sex here is vanilla, and class consciousness is muted; John’s remark that “it’s a miracle when anyone gets anywhere from a bad postcode” hangs in the air, unscrutinised. In the hands of director Coky Giedroyc, How to Build a Girl offers a world of easy empowerment, where sexism can be laughed off or defeated with a righteous speech.
Here, a bedroom wall plastered with cultural icons like Sigmund Freud and Sylvia Plath (all played by celebrities, including Allen’s sister Lily and Giedroyc’s sister Mel) comes alive with a string of “you go, girl!” platitudes. Its feminist spirit, at times, feels oddly isolated from reality. A rockstar inviting a teenage girl into his hotel suite in the dead of night should set off all kinds of alarm bells – except, in How to Build a Girl, it’s played as dashingly romantic.
And yet, Feldstein’s charms are brilliantly weaponised here. It’s hard to imagine anyone else who could believably sell a dorky, small-town savant’s transformation into poison-penned, “lady sex pirate”. But, with a wink and smile, she makes anything seem possible.
How to Build a Girl is available now on Amazon Prime