Beanie Feldstein’s energy could power a thousand satellite towns, but we know that already, don’t we? In Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated Lady Bird, she played the gawky sidekick and best pal to its titular lead – and stole the show. In this summer’s Booksmart – perhaps the strongest and most moving teen comedy America has produced in the past decade – she effortlessly slipped into the shoes of a high school do-gooder going rogue for the last days before graduation.
She has established an excellent niche for herself: the endearing co-lead blessed with a knife-sharp sense of comedic timing. But in Coky Giedroyc’s How to Build A Girl, we finally get to spend a sumptuous 100 minutes almost entirely in her company. Adapted from Caitlin Moran’s semi-autobiographical novel, the film follows Johanna Morrigan, a 14-year-old from Wolverhampton on her journey to make it big as a red-haired, riotous rock critic named Dolly Wilde in the Big Smoke.
Every music journalist knows the feeling of standing outside a bougie hotel wearing scuffed trainers and a t-shirt that should’ve been washed three days ago. There’s a disconnect between celebrities and those enlisted to tell their stories that lures in the latter in the first place. It’s a world greater, more intriguing than our own; a place where fantasy roams free. That unknown attracts young Johanna to it in the first place. After a failed attempt to make it as a poet, stuttering her way through a sonnet about her love of dogs on local TV competition, her wise, music nut brother Chrissy, played confidently by Laurie Kynaston, hands her the path to her future: a newspaper call-out for critics to write for D&ME, a vaguely familiar-sounding music magazine. She hands them a critique of the musical Annie‘s soundtrack and, much to her surprise, it works. She stomps into the machismo-heavy offices of the magazine to prove her worth, and before long, she’s got her first gig: reviewing a regional show by the Manic Street Preachers.
It might be a small first step, but it catalyses Johanna’s transformation into Dolly Wilde, a more confident, biting, sexually liberated version of herself who now walks through the street of her hometown with a swagger. But as with all great ascents to regional fame, it has to come crashing down at some point. This familiar low-high-low narrative arch is naturally predictable but perfectly suited to Johanna’s story: her mother and father (played by Sarah Solemani and Paddy Considine) are forced reckon with their 16-year-old daughter’s reckless behaviour. The talking, cut-out portraits on her bedroom wall of legends of history and film she once confided in are now trapped behind her vitriolic takedowns of Paul Simon and Eddie Vedder. What she thinks is a flourishing romance stalls.
How to Build a Girl offers up a warm familiarity for anyone who came of age with Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging and its kin of Brit teen faves. It’s matches the scribbling diaries and lovelorn voiceovers of those films with something a little fresher too: a charming and irresistible love letter to ’90s Northern teenagehood and music journalism’s inky heyday.
Colourful it may have been, but Moran’s script is hellbent on calling out the gross exploitation of power and the barrier that existed – and still does exist – for women and the working classes in the industry. But she does so with a sense of humour: a quality the film unwaveringly sticks to. When an editor asks 16-year-old Dolly to sit in his lap, she jumps on him and flails about like it’s a fairground ride. A later, unpredictable allusion to U2 had the audience in hysterics.
Films like How to Build A Girl don’t exist outside the realm of criticism, but they’re made with an audience rather than movie industry chit-chatter in mind. Sure, it might not be for everyone – I get the impression middle-aged film writers will highlight its simplicity or its sweetness as detrimental qualities (for me they’re both assets) – but it’s all part of the charm. As Dolly herself discovers, being a dickhead about art that isn’t made for you seldom does you any favours. Sometimes it’s better just to loiter at the back and try to enjoy the show instead.
How to Build a Girl premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. It will be released in UK cinemas later in the year.