US – Caitlin Moran’s film adaptation of her 2014 novel How to Build a Girl is daring, funny, sweet, and never for a moment predictable.
First in a trilogy of refreshingly female coming-of-age stories, sparkling with a drop-in by ever-stunning Emma Thompson, and under direction of Coky Giedroyc, this film introduces a nerdy misfit teen with a talent for writing bested only by her talent for taking risks that land her into trouble.
Our heroine, Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein), a high school-er in working class Wolverhampton UK, has the startling revelation that her family is in dire financial straits. Each of her attempts to fix and earn is a flop. Having a yearning- but no confidence- to use her writing skills, she is propelled to enter a writing contest if only to win cash for her family. Although talented, Johanna is introverted. For encouragement and advice, she calls upon the photographic images on her bedroom wall, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Sylvia Plath, Jo March, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Taylor, Maria Von Trapp, Cleopatra. Her demoralizing (and televised) failed reading of her entry sends her scuttling back to the drawing board. Notice (spoiler alert) that she doesn’t stop there… Johanna shows us early on that it takes imagination and re-imagination in addition to grit to live out what we feel called to do. And here is where Moran’s insightful writing shines- and the fun begins…
Played convincingly by Paddy Considine, Johanna’s stuck “back in the day” musician dad attempts to be head of household- that is, when he isn’t fantasizing about running away and starting up his own rock band. Repeatedly. Johanna’s baby-late-in-life mum (Sarah Solemini- Bridget’s best friend in Bridget Jones’ Baby, Rose Gulliver in Bad Education) gladly hands her baby off to her daughter when she’s (frequently) overwhelmed with motherly duties. To her credit, mum has a few winning moments. Overall, however, we eagerly run to our Johanna’s support as we anticipate the painful missteps she could take without maternal role model or comfort.
Johanna’s wonderfully dysfunctional family of five also includes a brother Krissi (Laurie Kynaston), exploring his sexuality over in the room through which Johanna must walk in order to get to her own afterthought private space. Krissi identifies a Help Wanted ad for a “rock critic” writer for which Johanna takes a huge risk and wins an interview at a posh music review magazine.
It’s equally hilarious and painful to see our woman-child pursue this adultish goal, especially attempting to adapt her behavior and responses to the rude all-male staff more than willing to make fun of her. “So I should go then?” Johanna asks within moments of her arrival at interview, demoralized by their dismissal of her. “You’ve come a long way,” one of the more sympathetic men tells her. ”Here, have a free t-shirt…” But Johanna persists: She’s eventually handed, albeit with a smirk from her new “colleague,” a potentially impossible assignment. Nonetheless, Johanna relishes her victory! That is, until reality sets in…
“I have nothing to wear,” Johanna laments. “My best item of clothing I own is my hair...” She promptly dyes said hair a bright, clownish red, then rips through her wardrobe and pulls on the most outlandish items she can find: button-down shirt and ascot tie, top hat, a coat with tails, shorts, and Doc Martens. She then, if not smoothly, at least effectively, makes her way to a nightclub, without a car or a driving license, to hear and review a band.
Eventually, Johanna lands a full-time gig as music journalist. With dad as a strangely sympathetic ally, Johanna, as her new “self” with perfectly-crafted pen name of “Dolly Wilde,” sets off to all manner of far-away and late-night music venues to review rock performers. “Ms. Wilde” establishes herself, enjoying a long run of successes that open worlds formerly unknown. Relentless in pursuit of publication, Johanna uniquely turns the heat up on her reporting- as well as her daring celebrity. We see her morph from tentative and awkward newbie, hiding her “secret life” of writing, to honing her impresario-like clout, striding boldly into her school dressed in her outlandish caricature costume, and essentially flipping off her teachers for assuming she’d continue to just fit in as quiet and shy kid. But eventually Moran– as Johanna- asks the pivotal question, “What do you do when you build yourself, then you realize you’ve built yourself with the wrong things?”
We, as Johanna’s companions on the journey, love these epiphanies-however much they make us cringe. Ah, yes, these moments, as in real life, do not come without a cost… as Johanna moans at one point in the film, “I’m sixteen, and I’m over…” But Moran does not hold back on the unique awkwardness of adolescence in her settings. Again, yes, this might make us wince, knowing how painful it can be to try something new which yields results unanticipated, unsettling, beyond our wildest imaginings, and even derailing to what we’d thought we might achieve. We shout “hooray” as we cheer Johanna on.
Because some of the scenes take place inside bars and similar music venues, we’re treated to some good rock and roll: loud, raucous, exhilarating. Kudos for score go to Oli Julian since we get the idea of place- and placement- of our young heroine to the point that we can smell the spilled pints.
Kudos also to Giedroyc and film editors for depicting the heroine’s “sexual journey” with mere dabs at the experiences vs. long, drawn-out details, and in ways that are laughable and in keeping with the theme of the intersections of Johanna’s naivete’ with a very adult world. From these intersections come laugh-put-loud scenes, including a “big child” who, in response to sexual harassment at her magazine’s office, bounces herself on the lap of a would-be sexual predator boss. We can’t help but double over as Johanna looks cowardly for a moment, then re-thinks, backs up her large frame, and launches herself onto the man and starts bouncing to break the dimwit’s lap. We then see Johanna as a chubby kid strategically donning plastic bags to prove herself brave enough to join colleagues partying naked in a hot tub. We also see Johanna even inviting serial dating- and serial sexing- so as to get the life experience she believes she needs to stay competitive and make a name for herself in her niche. Here is where some of the best laughs can be had. And here, also, is where we fall in love with our young heroine as we see she is struggling- and yet she persists…
“I write,“ a matured, in the trenches Johanna announces, “because that’s like putting a wish into a bottle.”
We want to give Johanna Morrigan both a reassuring and tender maternal hug and a three-fingers pour of tequila, straight up, while praying for potential outcomes as in Romans 12:2. It is in the witness of these complicated moments with our young heroine, reaching and failing, reaching and succeeding- but winning conditionally?- that we are not only entertained, but also potentially informed, empowered, and otherwise given a shove to grow.
Overall highly entertaining, engaging, and alternatingly poignant and wildly funny, How to Build a Girl should be seen by the world as it gives not only a view of one girl’s attempt to make something better for herself and her family, but also a vision of what it means for a girl to try to stand out, while trying to fit in, to learn to take risks, fail, and yet persist. It’s instructive: like Johanna did, if we want to follow our dream, we might need pull ourselves out of our families, and we most certainly must pick ourselves up after one horrible experience- or even after one entire horrible period in one’s life, dismissing what others might think of that.. Sometimes it’s just a matter of having the right people around us to help us- either by giving support or giving context- to get us to where it is we were meant to be. And sometimes those people don’t show up until we’ve tried and failed in trudging out on our own…
Alfie Allen as established adult writer John Kite who, eventually, becomes Johanna’s role model, echoes these themes. Allen shines as he explains to his protege’, metaphorically, after her first experience on an airplane, “If you go high enough, it’s always sunny above the clouds, no matter how awful it is on earth.” Wise words. And Johanna’s sympathetic teacher Mrs. Brelling (Joanne Scanlon), reflects these themes, too, as she tells Johanna briskly- but lovingly- after receiving Johanna’s extraordinary submission of a 33-page paper for a very ordinary assignment: “Thank you for being so generous with your art, but could you rein it in a bit? This is not ‘War and Peace.’” Pre-celebrity Johanna responds with what many of us who write may already know and feel: “But artistic expression is the greatest preventative for melancholy and morbidity, Mrs. B.”
Let’s hope Caitlin Moran won’t ever have a need to “rein it in a bit.”
So, just what does one do “when you build yourself, only to realize you built yourself with the wrong things…?” Our heroine Johanna Morrigan’s response is, “You rip it up and start again.”
Not only highly satisfying, that response earns more than appreciative applause.
Looking very much forward to the adaptation of Moran’s second book in the trilogy, How To Be Famous (Ebury Press 2018).
Viewing Audience Note: See- and celebrate- this film with a girlfriend, and definitely consider taking a young person to see this with the end goal of having a thoughtful conversation about the story because, yes, there’s sex spoken of, also depicted. It’s the same kind of sex that can take place in any non-conservative setting. Take that into consideration in deciding who should see this…
There’s also sexual harassment and assault depicted in the film. It’s the same kind of sexual harassment and assault that can take place in any office, anywhere in the world. In this writer’s opinion, there isn’t any consideration needed in deciding who should see this…
Text ©2020 Michele Caprario – In Memory of Bruce Bellingham 5/8/18
Photos Courtesy of IFC Films
Run Time: 1 Hour, 42 Minutes
How to Build a Girl, novel by Caitlin Moran, published by Ebury Press (UK) and Harper Collins(US)
Adapted for the screen by Caitlin Moran with John Niven (The F*ck-It List).
Lionsgate films released in the UK DATE, US release date May 8,2020\
Produced by Alison Owen and Debra Hayward, Monumental Pictures alongside Film4.
Music by Oli Julian
This film had its world premier at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 7, 2019 at which time it won the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) Special Presentations award.
- Bernie Feldstein as Johanna Morrigan
- Alfie Allen as John Kite
- Paddy Considine as Pat Morrigan
- Emma Thompson as Amanda Watson
- Sarah Solemini as Angie Morrigan
- Chris O’Dowd as Alan Wilko Wilkinson
- Frank Dillane as Tony Rich
- Arinze Kene as Kenny
- Jameela Jamil as Cleopatra (on the wall)
- Edward Bluemel as Manager
- Laurie Kynaston as Krissi
- Gemma Armaton as Maria Von Trapp (on the wall)
- Lily Allen as Elizabeth Taylor (on the wall)
- Michael Sheen as Sigmund Freud (on the wall)
- Sharon Horgan as Jo March (on the wall)
- Lucy Punch as Syvia Plath (on the wall)
- Sue Perkins as Emily Bronte (on the wall)
- Joanne Scanlon as Mrs. Brelling (teacher)
- Mel Gledroyc as Charlotte Bronte (on the wall)
- Bob Mortimer as the awards host
- Alexei Sale as Karl Marx (on the wall)
- Patsy Ferran as Snow Pixie (on poster)
- Ziggy Heath as Derby
- Cleo as Bianca Morrigan
- Hammed Animashaun as Ed Edwards
Prime Video/Amazon online