How To Build A Girl begins in a library, and if the film wasn’t based on a real-life story, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a fairytale lifted straight from the book shelves.
The film follows a friendless teenager from a poor family who rises up out of obscurity and into the bright spotlight of literary fame, using only her wit and charm, and driven by a desire to help support her parents and beloved siblings.
(If you’re already spotting some parallels with Jo March, don’t worry – there are various nods to her throughout the film.)
But this seeming rags-to-riches story is also based on Caitlin Moran’s semi-autobiographical bestseller. Moran, best known for her journalism for The Times and for her various books, grew up in Wolverhampton and became a music critic while still a teenager, just as the film’s protagonist Johanna does. Moran also makes a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo near the end of the film.
Johanna is played by Booksmart actor Beanie Feldstein. Her Wolverhampton accent occasionally slips – most noticeably during a shouting match with her family. But that’s besides the point: Feldstein brilliantly captures Johanna’s mood swings, eccentricities, and evolution from “nice girl” to professional “bitch”, as she becomes notorious for writing savage music reviews under the pen name Dolly Wilde.
Her critiques are increasingly personal – at one point she calls Joni Mitchell horse-faced (and for Dolly, that’s one of her kinder comments).
Of course, this being a film, there has to be some dramatic tension, which arises when Johanna begins to act too much like ‘Dolly’ in real life. But the film ultimately celebrates every iteration of Johanna – we’re told that we should cherish our younger versions, and every phase of “building” ourselves.
“I’ve read every book in this library, but I can’t find a story about a girl like me,” Johanna tells the viewer right at the beginning of the film. And although she’s talking about the lack of leading-men in her life – there are no Mr Darcys or Rochesters in Wolverhampton – the quotation neatly sums up the film as a whole.
The film centres on a working class, lonely, ‘plus-size’ young woman – the kind of character that is so rarely committed to screen. And other than Lady Bird (also set in the 1990s, and which Feldstein also starred in) I can’t remember watching anything else recently that so perfectly captures how it feels to be a young, poor woman from a small town, impatient for life to “properly” begin.
Neither does Johanna ever play down her working class background (something working class characters often seem to do in films). When a Cambridge graduate refers to her as his “bit of rough”, she shakes her head. Maybe he’s her bit of posh, she retorts.
Although this is Feldstein’s gig, the supporting cast all shine, too. Paddy Consindine plays Johanna’s dad, Pat, a thwarted would-be rock star, while Sarah Solemani plays her mother, Angie, who has postnatal depression.
Moran, who also wrote the screenplay, is well-known among her readers for her laugh-out-loud one-liners, and she reserves many of her best zingers for Johanna’s family members to use (at one point, Angie refers to her own vagina as “like the Joker’s smile down there”).
In addition to Moran’s own cameo at the end, there are also plenty of other guest appearances – Johanna’s bedroom wall is covered in pictures of her idols, who all offer her advice in her imagination. To give you an idea: Mel and Sue play the Bronte sisters; Lily Allen is Elizabeth Taylor; and Michael Sheen is Sigmund Freud.
Emma Thompson’s time on-screen as a journalism editor is shorter than expected, but her character still packs perhaps the most impactful punch of all.
For most of the film Johnna has been battling the whims and insecurities of an all-male editorial team, and with Thompson’s character she finally finds a kindred spirit: a woman who appreciates her work for its truth and, more importantly, understands exactly how much it takes to build a girl.
How To Build A Girl will be available to watch on Amazon Prime Video from 24th July 2020.
Looking for something else to watch? You can check out our TV Guide.