Directed by Coky Giedroyć, and written by Caitlin Moran, based on her own bestseller, How to Build a Girl is a very watchable film, with an excellence performance from Beanie Feldstein in the lead. Oddly though, despite it being inspired by a true story, it somehow feels like something we’ve seen before, even with all its quirky nature and entertaining moments, but there is plenty here to admire.
Set in 1993, we meet Feldstein’s Johanna Morrigan, a 16-year-old working-class girl who lives in a cramped home with her family in Wolverhampton. She longs for a different life, to almost be a different person, and while initially not sure how to do this, over time she realises she’ll need a complete reinvention of herself if she wants to have fun, sleep with who she wants and be more accepted by those around her. Step forward Dolly Wilde, a top-hat wearing music critic, who is out to be controversial and take the London music-scene by storm, whoever she offends on the way there but is Dolly the right person who she wants to be?
Once she secures a writing job at the made-up music weekly Disc & Music Echo (D&ME), seemingly a version of the influential NME, it’s clear she’s been thrown into the boys club, with blatant sexual harassment in the work place and that ‘scene’ from the 90s where men could seemingly still say, or do, anything and it was thrown aside as a merely a ‘bit of a laugh’. This approach, while very true of the era, does date the film now and make some early moments a little cringeworthy, rather than reflective, and shows times have moved forwards a little more than we hoped.
This is a good example of how the reality of a true story alongside storytelling in a fictional sense can be a difficult thing to balance, and still keep the audience captivated. Because of this, the characters take a while to really embed into the story (maybe they don’t have enough time to fully develop) and thus into the audience. Whether this is down to the stylistics of how its filmed or just that it feels you’ve seen this kind of thing is something that floats in the air for a lot of the film despite an impressive co-starring cast that includes the likes of Sarah Solemani, Paddy Considine and Laurie Kynaston all giving more than solid performances.
Interestingly, despite the disconnection that drifts around, I did find that there’s certainly quite a number of quotable moments and laugh-out-loud incidents, that felt a little more real and of the moment. In truth, this is a film about burning the negative in your life, starting again and doing better. It doesn’t lecture you but instead puts out the pictures in front of you, and lets you make your own story from both versions of the lead character.
One of the closing segments of How to Build a Girl sees Feldstein’s Dolly/Johanna break the fourth wall and talk directly down the camera lens about all her experiences, her desires to see others be successful and it made me realise that approach would have been welcome for a lot more of the film, in an almost High Fidelity sense, because the film indiciates a lot this is about being ‘your’ story. Whether they decided it’d been done before, I’m not sure, but I feel it would have given us a separate focus to feel more in her world, despite knowing it from a distance.
Overall, I think the key to your enjoyment of How to Build a Girl will come from your personal love of music, writing and a touch of nostalgia. Once we’re in the flow, it’s very charming, Feldstein continues her rise to brilliance and the supporting cast of Solemani, Considine and Kynaston keep it just tight enough to enjoy to the finale.