How To Build A Girl

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

How To Build A Girl
"Where the narrative is hampered by a lack of self awareness, Feldman finds a way to turn it into something more poignant." | Photo: Glasgow Film Festival

There's a shortage of films out there about teenage girls that don't revolve around boys, so Coky Giedroyc's comedy drama, which is based on the semi-autobiographical book by Caitlin Moran and closed this year's Glasgow Film Festival, certainly has a contribution to make. It benefits from an energetic central performance from Beanie Feldstein, fast emerging as one of the brightest talents of her generation, and is forthright in tackling topics like sex, family strife, and how it feels to know nothing about rock n' roll. 16-year-old Johanna wants to be a writer and is willing to take whatever opportunity she can get. When she realises that a knowledge of music is low down the list of requirements for a job in the music press, she dyes her hair, changes her wardrobe, heads down to London and blags her way into becoming a reviewer.

Girl meets job, girl loses job, girls wins job back and then - well, you'll see. This isn't exactly groundbreaking stuff but then, real life rarely is; and it's at its best when it feels like it's sticking to the facts, the more fantastical and romantic elements adding a dose of syrup that makes it sticky in all the wrong ways. This is a charmed version of real life where nobody seems to be seriously set on exploiting our heroine and the worst that really happens to her is that discovery that men can be a bit shite, but where the narrative is hampered by a lack of self awareness, Feldman finds a way to turn it into something more poignant. Johanna's naivety makes her no less charismatic and no less capable of asserting herself. Because she owns her failures, she's easy to root for.

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There's also an element of cheering on the underdog here because Johanna is a working class girl from Wolverhampton and trying to make it in a world where having the right social background is a huge deal, even today. There are some odd little slip-ups with this, like a scene in which her father is challenged by an official for claiming disability benefit whilst working (which is completely legal and not even very unusual), but Feldstein, to her credit, does a good job of fitting into the role, even if her accent has more vowels than one might expect. We're supposed to feel for Joanna as she gradually becomes more aware of how others think about her background, but to be honest it's hard to see how she fails to grasp this from the start or, indeed, when it expresses itself in a different guise in the film's superficially happy ending.

Where this background might have made Joanna more sympathetic to others in precarious positions, her initial taste of success makes her determined to have more at all costs, and it's not long before she realises that vicious reviews please her editors most. This make room for a succession of entertainingly barbed one-liners taking on stars big and small. Evil always makes for good viewing but of course it's also the laziest way to write, whether one is producing a review or a script - and there's a reason why many companies employing serious writers won't consider reviews as part of a portfolio. This makes way for an ending about truth and reconciliation. The difficulty is that it's hard to believe wholeheartedly in either, at least as they are presented to us, and whilst the little bit of gift shop wisdom at the end may work for a young teenage audience, older viewers are likely to find it hollow.

Despite its flaws, this is a film with a fair degree of charm and is well worth watching for Feldstein's work alone. It's likely to hit the spot with many teenage viewers. It's just a shame that it didn't turn down the schmaltz and stop trying so hard to be liked, because it could have been something much stronger.

Reviewed on: 09 May 2020
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How To Build A Girl packshot
A bored schoolgirl reinvents herself as a professional music critic.

Director: Coky Giedroyc

Writer: Caitlin Moran, based on her own novel

Starring: Beanie Feldstein, Alfie Allen, Paddy Considine, Donal Finn

Year: 2019

Runtime: 102 minutes

Country: UK

Festivals:

Glasgow 2020

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