How to Build a Girl (2019) is a British coming-of-age comedy written by Caitlin Moran and directed by Coky Giedroyc. The film is an adaptation of Moran’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name written in 2014. The film stars Beanie Feldstein [Booksmart] in the lead role as Johanna Morrigan, alongside Paddy Considine, Sarah Solemani, Alfie Allen, and Laurie Kynaston.
The plot of How to Build a Girl follows the story of Johanna Morrigan, a sixteen-year-old girl who lives with her family on a Wolverhampton estate. After applying to write for D&ME, a music publication in London, Johanna finds herself conflicted about her role at the paper.
It’s always a worry when you see an American actor performing a British character. I sometimes find myself holding my breath before their first line in fear of what sound might come out. Feldstein’s West Midlands accent isn’t harrowing, but it’s not exactly natural sounding either. The best way I can think to describe it is if you hadn’t heard Beanie Feldstein’s native accent, you would still be able to tell that a Wolverhampton one isn’t it. The accent doesn’t make the film unwatchable, but it does make me almost hyperaware to the rhodic pronunciations that slip in every now and again.
The film’s style is what you would expect to find in a British, (semi) autobiographical film, often overcast and a bit dreary. The locations and settings seem ideal and well chosen for the film’s plot. I enjoyed some of the cinematographic choices that Giedroyc used to demonstrate Johanna’s childlike overzealousness in her reactions to the largely mundane.
My main issue with How to Build a Girl is with it’s narrative. It would be wrong to say it lacked direction, because the arc of Johanna’s character is as present as you would expect to find in a coming-of-age film. I found myself trying to relate to Johanna, which in theory should have been easy – there’s plenty of aspects to her character that I could relate to. I’ve been a sixteen-year-old girl, I’m working class, I’m British, I love to write, and my best friend is also a dog. Yet, I couldn’t really find myself relating to Johanna at all. Maybe it’s because her extroverted and confident personality is so far removed from my own, but I think it’s more the fact that throughout the entire film, she presented very little in the way of opinion. This is the issue with the film as whole, and seeing the story through the eyes of Johanna. The thematic content was there: class, gender, sexuality – it just didn’t tell me what it thought about any of it. The mere presence of the idea of social commentary lingering in the background just isn’t enough to add any real depth. The film left me feeling confused and unresolved. I struggled to extract any moral to the story type deal, an overarching sentiment that I could take away from it.
There are moments when it seems to be picking up traction, usually at the points of conflict-resolution, but these are few and far between. One of the pitfalls of writing a semi-autobiographical (or autobiographical) film, is that sometimes the audience is expected to know this character already. If Moran created Johanna as some sort of version of herself, then she’s already got formative experiences and her own idiosyncrasies, but for an unsuspecting viewer, they need to be communicated as though we’ve never seen this character before. I think this is another reason why Johanna is unrelatable. She tells us she’s an amazing writer but we’re not really shown any evidence of this. The whole middle section of the film where she becomes the hellion Dolly Wilde is never really validated nor is it justifiable. I actually think most of the characters needed more depth and development in order to propel the story beyond its very limited scope.
Another reason I felt disappointed by How to Build a Girl is because I couldn’t help myself comparing it to Caitlin Moran’s autobiography How to Be a Woman (2011) which I’ve read and enjoyed. In comparison, How to Build a Girl is shallow and uninspiring. It has the solid foundation for a good story, it’s just not executed very well.
I have decided to rate this film five out of ten, because whilst it’s by no means a masterpiece, there were a few elements worthy of praise. It’s enjoyable to watch and has it’s funny moments. It also provides the viewer with some interesting insights too. On the other hand, I feel like the film tried to market itself as an anthem for young girls, especially with Johanna’s ending monologue – but it’s just not that. It doesn’t offer any good advice and it didn’t leave me feeling inspired. I think How to Build a Girl would have worked better as a drama-comedy, in which it could have run the gamut of emotion from high to low, rather than poodling around in a middle ground that’s neither funny nor dramatic.
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