British author, presenter and columnist Caitlin Moran’s 2014 semi-autobiographical novel “How to Build a Girl” isn’t just a great book about being a teenage girl. It’s a great book about being a writer; about being the biggest dreamer in a small town, yearning to break free. It’s about how when we’re learning to be real people in the world, we experiment with building a persona, brick by brick, which hopefully, eventually, becomes a person. And it’s a rollicking treatise on criticism and the perils of trading cheap snark for the high of notoriety.
How fortunate it is to see this brilliant source material brought to life by the perfect actor and director in the film adaptation. Star Beanie Feldstein beautifully embodies the unfettered ebullience of 16-year old Johanna Morrigan while director Coky Giedroyc brings to life Johanna’s small but imaginative slice of the world with a touch of magical realism. Moran adapted her own book for the screenplay, and maintains her signature voice, both in Johanna’s narration, and in her writing, which becomes her calling card to venture out into the wider world.
Imagine if “Almost Famous” had been about a teenage girl from a poor but loving family living on a council estate in Wolverhampton, and you’ll get something like “How to Build a Girl,” though Johanna is far more brash, reckless and colorful than William Miller. She’s Lester Bangs by way of Penny Lane, and that much more fascinating for it.
Awkward teen Johanna gets her first taste of fame when she recites a poem about friendship (it’s about her dog) on the local TV station, where she absolutely bombs and lets slip about the family’s border collie breeding operation, jeopardizing their welfare benefits. Hoping to make a bit of scratch, she sends off a writing sample to the rock ‘n’ roll rag D&ME, at the behest of her brother and best friend, Krissi (Laurie Kynaston). Her review of the “Annie” soundtrack is witty enough to gain her entry (even if as a joke) to their offices, where she screws up her courage (with the aid of a benevolent talking Bjork poster in the bathroom) and demands a writing opportunity.
Much of Johanna’s life is filled with screwing up her courage to do something scary, and what she becomes is so far from the mumbling teen on Midlands TV. With a wild new “rock critic” look, complete with Doc Martens, flowing fire-engine red locks and a top hat, she starts to take the rock clubs by storm, gaining a bit of influence under her pen name, Dolly Wilde. She learns to play by the rules of the posh boys club at D&ME, relying on her silly outsize persona. As Dolly, Johanna can be as bold and rude and drunk and as sexy as she has always wanted to be. Her clever, biting eviscerations of bands are great for circulation, and great for her brand, until the Dolly lifestyle almost ruins the Johanna that’s carrying it all.
This sincerely felt and utterly effervescent coming-of-age tale expresses a universal truth about being alive: that hopefully, you’ll have the chance, and the awareness, to make and remake yourself, again and again, dusting off the old bricks you’ve got and forming them into something familiar but new. With a cheeky nod to the camera, and acknowledgment of the film’s unique perspective, Johanna praises the effort of doing all of that adventuring, mistake-making, growing and learning, for someone truly special: for a girl, for you.
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