Adapting her semi-autobiographical novel How to Build a Girl for the screen, Caitlin Moran has created with co-writer John Niven and director Coky Giedroyc a funny and touching coming-of-age story that occasionally loses its way, just like its protagonist.
Growing up with haphazard parents and too many siblings on a Wolverhampton estate, Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein) longs to escape. Unlike Virginia Woolf, she tells us, Johanna doesn’t even have a room of her own. It is her devotion to culture that promises to save her, from Top of the Pops (“the real news”) to the postcards that literally come to life on her wall: Donna Summer, the Brontë sisters, Maria von Trapp, Frida Kahlo, Sigmund Freud. In one early scene, she is literally hit on the head with a book.
The film is full of perfect one-liners. “I fucked your mum back in ’72, give her my regards won’t you” shouts Paddy Considine’s endearingly useless faded rockstar father to one of the local bullies victimising his daughter. “Everybody can suck a big bag of dicks” recites Johanna to herself, a mantra that will get her through nightmares from an awkward television appearance to a sanitary towel accident in gym class.
The film’s first act is superb: full of life, wit and care. It combines Booksmart’s frenetic hyper-citational style with Grange Hill’s drab realism. The film only enriches its colour palette when Johanna’s music journalism career starts to take off – her first journey above the clouds on an aeroplane is an easy metaphor. Her first gig experience pops with colour – blue and green filters match Johanna’s newly dyed red hair. But this discovery – of the world beyond Wolverhampton, and with it, love, sex and alcohol – make her, and the film, a little boring. Just as the film finds its colour it loses its beat and this middle act stretches on too long.
Once the insufferable cool of the London music scene – “they don’t dance, they wear uncomfortable little trousers and they’re constantly misquoting Kerouac” – has inevitably rubbed off on her, Johanna just isn’t so likeable. As feminist Roxanne Gay asks us in her essay “Not Here to Make Friends”: why is female likeability always a prerequisite for pleasure? The problem here is that the solipsism of the film’s single character arc leaves little room for empathising with the other characters who have to put up with her. In comparison to Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, in which Feldstein was just a sidekick, the screenplay for How to Build a Girl lacks the depth needed to humanise Johanna’s mother (Sarah Solemani), suffering from post-natal depression, or her brother (Laurie Kynaston), whose gay awakening is ignored.
In a heart-wrenching moment of reckoning, though, Johanna finally overhears her new friends’ classist and sexist “banter” and is able to see them for what they are – “little boys smashing things up”. If only we as viewers hadn’t had to endure so much of their obnoxious company. At heart, this is a film for those of us who weren’t even a little bit cool, and it’s at its best when it remembers that. Feldstein is terrific throughout – you’ll mostly laugh with her and even when you’re laughing at her it’s like you’re laughing at yourself.
How to Build a Girl will be released on Amazon Prime Video on 24 July.
Clara Bradbury-Rance | @CBradburyRance