There’s no doubt about it; Beanie Feldstein is the actress to beat right now. She’s got style, charisma, talent and the camera loves her. After two significant roles in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and in Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, Feldstein is destined for A-list stardom, and this critic could quite happily watch her read the LA phone book, if such an archaic object still exists. Unfortunately not all texts go down so easily, and the vehicle How to Build A Girl, a ‘wonder of me’ entry about an aspiring teenage music journalist, sticks in the throat somewhat.
Written and co-produced by Caitlin Moran as a straight-up tribute to herself, How to Build A Girl is the story of Johanna Morrigan, a West Midlands girl who brings shame on her family when she inadvertently reveals her father’s illegal dog-breeding activities when she takes part in a televised poetry reading competition. Johanna reinvents herself as a music journalist for fictional music rag D&ME, but the negative influence of the young, posh male editors sends her into a spiral of erratic behaviour and self-hate, but not before she’s embraced a reputation as the biggest ‘ars*hole’ in the business.
Co-writer John Niven was responsible for the similar music-biz film Kill Your Friends, and brings many of the same elements into play here; a weird mix of musical references where the factual and fictional sit uneasily alongside (the real Manic Street Preachers alongside fake soul-singer John Kite), plus anachronistic dialogue (seriously, who was saying ‘s*ck a bag of d*icks’ back in the early 90’s?). This lack of specificity is problematic in charting Johanna’s transformation from ingénue to hack and back, in that it’s hard to see where she might fit into a world so carelessly described; a montage/selection of Johanna’s ‘best’ literary lines are just crude insults about the physicality of others (‘Paul Simon looks like a toe with a face painted on’)
Coky Giedroyc’s How To Build A Girl has a chick-lit energy which doesn’t conceal its faults as a bildungsroman; Johanna conforms to all the male stereotypes of women, she’s flaky, erratic, aggressive, over-emotional, self-destructive and vicious in her conscious mission to be a ‘bitch’ to others, yet doesn’t make any real changes or sacrifices to emerge as a deeper or more spiritual person. While there’s some amusing throw-away asides to Little Women, Johanna’s journey is not conveyed with any depth of humanism; see the far superior Lady Bird and note the difference.
And yet what endures here is Feldstein, who earns all three of the film’s stars. She imbues Johanna with an undeserved pathos, capturing both girlish enthusiasm and personal rancour with ease. If the dialogue and structure were up to scratch here, a great movie would potentially have been on the cards, but it’ll be hard to keep this good girl down. Dynamic and likeable, Feldstein really is worth the rental alone.
How To Build A Girl hits Uk streaming services on July 24th 2020.
Thanks to Lionsgate UK for early access to this title.