Coky Giedroyc’s adaptation of Caitlin Moran’s novel is a sharp comedy that gives Beanie Feldstein even more room to prove her talents.
“Do you know what cool people are, Johanna? Cool like the people in that room? Cool people are the worst.”
So says Björk, or at least a version of her that exists in the imagination of Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein) as she hides in the bathroom after being rejected. Many a movie warns its audience of the danger of being cool, but oftentimes the lesson falls flat, owing to cinema’s superficial nature. However, Coky Giedroyc’s How to Build a Girl uses its unabashed sincerity to show that being popular isn’t worth it if your appeal lies in being callous.
Written by Caitlin Moran as an adaptation of her book of the same name (which is in turn inspired by her adolescence), How to Build a Girl follows 16-year-old Johanna as she dreams of escaping her small town in the English Midlands during the early ‘90s. While Johanna’s aim is to be a poet, a disastrous poetry reading not only kills her social standing, but also alerts social services that her dad, Pat (Paddy Considine), is illegally breeding border collies.
With her dad’s social security dried up, Johanna is desperate for money, and upon seeing a wanted ad for a music critic for the D&ME music paper, she submits a review of the Annie soundtrack. Despite the staff’s reservations, they give her the job, and the nebish Johanna reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde.
This reinvention allows Feldstein to flex her acting muscles. Johanna is the smart, mousy, adorkable type of girl that Feldstein is known for playing (albeit with a very believable British accent), but Dolly is funny and confident and the kind of girl I wish I were friends with in high school. Costume designer Stephanie Collie decks her out in proto-hipster gear: smart coats, bejeweled bustiers, high-waisted shorts, Doc Martens, and a top hat resting comfortably on maroon hair. But while Jo’s Dolly persona is always smart and self-assured, the persona goes through some considerable changes.
At first, her writing is full of positivity and sincere love for rock ‘n’ roll, and while Dolly is cool, she keeps Johanna’s kindness. This positivity backfires on her, however, when she takes her first feature: an interview with rock dreamboat John Kite (Alfie Allen). John is kind and takes Johanna under his wing, and she instantly falls in love with him. Her gushing piece isn’t taken kindly by chief editor Kenny (Arinze Kene), and he almost sacks her. To avoid losing her income, Johanna decides to make Dolly the “Queen Bitch” of the music scene, dishing out negative reviews that focus mostly on looks rather than talent.
What happens next is the classic “fame makes you an asshole” story. The snarky reviews are a hit, increasing circulation and giving her a certain level of fame that culminates in her winning the dubious “Asshole of the Year Award” at a music press award show. However, as she gives in to drinking and partying, her wild antics and selfishness alienates her from her family, causing her to drop out of school.
It’s a common story, and anyone could predict the plot beats. However, Moran and Giedroyc give the well-worn character arc some new perspective by intertwining it with sexism and classism. Johanna is the only woman in the room at D&ME, and her colleagues never let her forget it. Not only do they belittle her opinion and enthusiasm, but these 20- and 30-somethings act in an uncomfortably sexual manner towards a 16-year-old girl. They call her jailbait, and one editor makes her sit on his lap to ask him for a feature. Johanna takes it in stride and even turns it against them at times, but it still feels slimy to watch these grown men treat a child like this. It gives a familiar story some much-needed depth.
If there’s anything that How to Build a Girl rails against, it’s the tired notion that “cruel = cool.”
Besides the sexual divide, Johanna’s low class is also a point of contention in the writing room. While the other writers are implied to come from rich backgrounds, Johanna lives in council estates (public housing) and is the sole breadwinner of the family. This fuels her desire to make it by any means necessary, even if it means becoming a “bitch.” Her frustration at her low socioeconomic status causes friction with her family and, in an emotional third act breakdown, she vents at them how unfair it is that their situation has forced her to grow up too fast.
But if there’s anything that How to Build a Girl rails against, it’s the tired notion that “cruel = cool.” Bitchy bon mots are funny, and every critic knows that a beatdown of bad media can be cathartic, but Dolly’s cruel critiques aren’t just mean. They aren’t real. They’re just shallow sentences meant to generate attention. Moran and Giedroyc never shame Johanna for her ambition or desire to fit in, but they make it clear that her negative writing is a waste of her talents.
Because while Dolly is funny, Johanna is the one who’s actually cool. It’s wonderful to see her gush about her future plans to her (slightly disinterested) teacher, and it’s fun to see her talk to her “wall of gods” (pop culture icons who give some fun cameos from famous Brits). It’s sweet to see her talk boys with her gay brother, Krissi (Laurie Kynaston), and it’s touching to see her interact with her ex-rocker dad. Most of all, it’s beautiful to see her loving depictions of the rock scene before she decides to turn to the dark side.
Johanna’s pure love for writing and rock music made me fall in love with this movie. Because I was Johanna. No, I wasn’t a girl growing up in Britain in the 1990s, and my writing skills at sixteen were definitely not worthy of publication, but I know how she feels. I know what it’s like to want to belong; I know the ecstasy of looking forward to an adulthood full of possibilities and the agony of it not happening as quickly as I would like. Most of all, I know how a rock concert can save your life, and watching How to Build a Girl let me relive that youth, if only for a little bit.
How to Build a Girl is now rocking up VOD.