I have a copy of Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Girl somewhere on my bookshelves. Obviously, I haven’t read it yet but I haven’t read a lot of the books on my bookshelves. A friend gave me a copy of How To Be A Woman for Christmas one year but I haven’t read that either. It’s not that I didn’t want to. It’s just that there are so many other books in the world. Being a reader is like having the worst case of FOMO imaginable. There are so many books that have already been published and plenty still to be published. Of course, you’re always going to be wondering if the book you’re currently reading is the best one that you can get. It’s understandable that certain books and authors are going to miss out and, unfortunately, Caitlin Moran was one of them. I had thought about waiting until I’d read the book but if I did that I’d never have watched the film. It probably goes against the bookish code but it had to be done.
How to Build a Girl is attempting to be Almost Famous but with a female lead and set in Wolverhampton. The biggest problem that I have, is that I’ve never been a fan of Almost Famous. It’s the Catcher in the Rye of films: beloved by angsty and pretentious teenagers but, ultimately, lacking substance. At least Caitlin Moran is funnier than Salinger, right? And at least this film features the charismatic Beanie Feldstein instead of a young and dull Kate Hudson. Straight after her breakout role in Booksmart, Feldstein is playing another dorky teenager who embraces a different identity. It’s just that this time she has a slightly dodgy Brummie accent. Yes, it’s admirable but, let’s be honest, it’s not convincing. But, I’m not going to hold it against her.
It can’t be easy transforming yourself from an LA native to a girl living on a council estate in Wolverhampton. That’s where Johanna Morrigan finds herself at the beginning of the film. She has dreams of being a writer and tries her best to find inspiration in her chaotic home life. Her mother is suffering from post-natal depression after having twin boys, her father is an ageing wannabe rockstar, and her other brother resides behind a partition wall in their shared room. When Johanna wangles a job at a music paper, D&ME, she finds a new world of rock n roll. She is successful but a bit too positive. Johanna quickly learns that the best way to make a name for yourself in the world of music criticism is to destroy everybody. Will Johanna see that her new world isn’t as wonderful as it appears before she destroys her relationship with the people she loves most?
How to Build a Girl is a charming and amusing story. There are some genuinely funny moments and there is something empowering as we watch Johanna take control of her life. Beanie Feldstein is a fantastic performer and makes it easier to sympathise with Johanna even during her worst moments. There will also be plenty of women, young and old, who see themselves in Johanna. She is a little sheltered and a bit too geeky for her peers. She has no close friends and relies on her brother to be her closest confidante. She runs all of her ideas past her wall of heroines and intellectuals. Johanna is the perfect template for every timid and shy young girl who dreams of finding the perfect boy but having no real idea how to do that.
There is something inspiring about her initial transformation. The way the Johanna fully embraces the world of rock stars and journalism is great. Beanie Feldstein is the perfect advocate for embracing who you are and what you look like. That it’s all about confidence and passion. It shouldn’t and doesn’t matter but, I have to say, she looks bloody fantastic when Johanna takes on the Dolly Wilde persona. We need more people like Feldstein on our screens and more chances to show that even non-conventionally attractive people can be sexy and alluring. Yet, I did find it annoying that the film pushed the idea of Johanna being such an enigmatic figure that she can instantly make people fall in love with her. She’s great but there is something a bit manic pixie dream girl about her. Alfie Allen’s singer, John Kite, is pretty much ready to propose marriage after the first minute of her interview.
Of course, it does help that she has a constant supply of Caitlin Moran one-liners behind her. This is where the film really comes into its own. Moran has great control over the English language and some of the writing in this film is superb. Johanna is one of those slightly too poetic fictional creations who you would dislike in real life but who just about works in this setting. Although, there is something overly familiar and cliched about her story. It’s a typical coming-of-age story set in a council estate. I can’t say that there is an awful lot about this film that makes it stand out from the crowd. We’ve seen plenty of teen movies where an “ordinary” person breaks into the celebrity world and suddenly makes friends. How to Build a Girl is sweet but there’s nothing groundbreaking here.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot to like about this film. It just seems to take an easy route. It uses the obvious and traditional narrative journey and the characters are instantly recognisable. It’s comforting in its familiarity but I find myself wishing it did a bit more. Instead of focusing on the interesting stuff, like Johanna’s strained relationship with her family, the film spends the majority of its time in the toxic music scene. In order to get the message across, everything just seems to be jammed in together. The issues seem to be sorted out really quickly, which is a shame considering it’s such a strong and important message. The film has too much fun showcasing the drunken debauchery and the vile critiques of popular artists. How to Build a Girl is an entertaining watch but it’s not something that you’ll be rushing back to watch time and time again.