‘How to Build a Girl’: Film Review

Beanie Feldstein takes down the cool kids in a brisk British comedy inspired by '90s rock critic Caitlin Moran

How to Build a Girl
Toronto Film Festival

Caitlin Moran’s career kicked off like a power chord. At 17, the rock critic prodigy who’d grown up broke in a Wolverhampton council flat with four brothers and her parents’ illegal puppy mill was being flown to America for an all-night slumber party with Courtney Love. Two weeks after her article ran, Kurt Cobain killed himself. Moran was accused of triggering his depression by publishing Love’s quotes about shagging her ex, Smashing Pumpkins’ singer Billy Corgan. In typical fashion, she later darkly joked that she’d “killed the spokesperson for my generation. Soz!”

Coky Giedroyc’s “How to Build a Girl,” penned by Moran and based on her semi-autobiographical best-selling memoir of the same name, doesn’t even reference that story. It’s got enough material just from the year before, when the 16-year-old girl was so desperate to buy back her family’s TV that she submitted a review of the “Annie” soundtrack to the indie rock snots at a weekly music magazine and got hired as their ironic mascot, a kid tarted up in fishnets and a top hat pretending to be full-grown.

As Moran, here going by both the alias Johanna Morrigan and her pen name Dolly Wilde, today’s go-to cannonball Beanie Feldstein rampages through high school hallways and nightclubs like she’s terrified that if she stops moving, she’ll be stuck. How else can she avoid turning out like her mom (Sarah Solemani), corpse-tired at 38 with an infant twin on each breast, or her dad (Paddy Considine), a never-was musician who still dreams of making it with his solo band, Mayonnaise?

The film races at her pace, leaving the audience frantic to keep up. Scenes end with door slams, major details rush by in a blur and some gags are cranked up way past 11, like when Johanna rhapsodizes about “the impact of a great book” as bullies throw one at her head. The final product feels like if the greatest musician in the world tried to write a classic in 15 minutes. Yet, “How to a Build a Girl” dares to argue that reinventing yourself doesn’t make you a poseur – the lowest of all insults, especially in the mid-’90s, when the film is set. It’s a young person’s jam that will hit the right teen like a thunderbolt.

The film’s fairy-tale first half is magical. Feldstein plays Johanna such like a cartoon princess that it seems natural when the magazine clippings on her wall come to life to give her advice. (She’s better off listening to Julie Andrews than Sylvia Plath.) Skipping toward the train for a job interview in London, she ignores the pathetic details of her life, like the missing “N” in the sign for Wolverhampton. Later, after she’s flubbed that first meeting, a poster of Björk calls out to her, “Rooms like that need girls like you.”

Yet, Johanna needs approval. She’s crazy about life, and crazy about boys; she doodles portraits of Mr. Darcy and hallucinates hunks outside her window flexing in Speedos. Romantic, yes. But once the plot gets Johanna past losing her virginity, she also can’t wait to connect with a foot fetishist just for the adventure.

Giedroyc’s portrait of young female sexuality is refreshingly cheeky. Yet, the film’s giggles nearly eclipse Moran’s larger point, which is, as she put it in an interview, “to stop women going out with f–king asshats.” Still, it’s lovely to see how cinematographer Hubert Taczanowski captures the emotions of Johanna’s first serious crush. When she meets skinny, shabby troubadour John Kite (Alfie Allen), flower petals fall from the ceiling. As they walk down the sidewalk, they’re tailed by a spotlight that seems to hope the pair will burst into song.

However, this sequence isn’t a date; it’s an assignment. Like Johanna’s guileless early criticism, when she could go to a Manic Street Preachers concert and declare rock reborn, “How to Build a Girl” is so infatuated with her exuberant point-of-view that Moran struggles to make us see she’s also a fool. Giedroyc won’t indict Kite for manipulating Johanna’s naïveté; even after the piece goes sideways, she becomes cynical and mean. Johanna’s bosses order her not to write like a teen girl; she blinks and replies, “But I am a teen girl?” Still, she takes the feedback and transforms herself from sweetheart to demon, an impossible-to-please critic who literally toasts to evil.

At her worst, Johanna dons a wedding train and drunkenly accepts an award for Asshole of the Year. (Among her crimes: She told Eddie Vedder to copycat Cobain’s death.) At stake is the difference between her elders’ faux authenticity and the sincerity that defines a true artist. Perhaps that argument matters less in an era when selling out as an influencer is the goal. Fake it till you make it, Moran seems to say. Her indestructability is totally punk rock.


‘How to Build a Girl’: Film Review

<p class="western">Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 7, 2019. Running time: 102 MIN.</p>

  • Production: A Monumental Pictures production. (Int'l sales: Protagonist Pictures, London.) Producers: Alison Owen, Debra Hayward. Executive producers: Daniel Battsek, Ollie Madden, Sue Bruce-Smith, Tim Headington, Lia Buman, Zygi Kamasa, Emma Berkofsky.
  • Crew: Director: Coky Giedroyc. Screenplay: Caitlin Moran. Camera (color): Hubert Taczanowski. Editors: Gary Dollner, Gareth C. Scales. Music: Oli Julian.
  • With: <p class="western">Beanie Feldstein, Alfie Allen, Paddy Considine, Sarah Solemani, Chris O'Dowd, Emma Thompson</p>