Teenage nerd reinvents herself in spirited British comedy

“How to Build a Girl” publicity still
Dolly Wilde, aka Joanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein), shares a musical moment with rock star John Kite (Alfie Allen) in How to Build a Girl. (Photo by Sven Arnstein/IFC Films)

By Richard Ades

Reading is usually an entertaining pastime, but for English teen Johanna Morrigan it’s a road map to dissatisfaction. That’s because she suspects her life will never live up to those of her literary heroines. For one thing, no Prince Charming ever shows up to save her from her humdrum existence.

“I do not think my adventure starts with a boy,” Johanna (Booksmart’s Beanie Feldstein) concludes early on. “I think it starts with me.”

This establishes the theme for How to Build a Girl, a comedy based on Caitlin Moran’s semiautobiographical novel about a girl bent on reinventing herself. Set in the early ’90s, it follows 16-year-old Johanna as she seeks to turn her writing talent into a fulfilling career. The quest eventually leads her to a dark corner of journalism in which she savages struggling bands as a poison-pen rock critic.

(Personal note: This portion of her saga struck a few autobiographical chords for me, as I long ago turned my love of writing into a career in journalism. And though I never became a rock critic, I worked with one who became famous for his devilishly nasty putdowns. Back to the movie.)

Directed by Coky Giedroyc from a script by Moran and John Niven, How to Build a Girl mixes witty invention with infectious exuberance. It quickly introduces us to Johanna’s large family, which includes her musically frustrated dad (Paddy Considine), her worn-out mom (Sarah Solemani) and her supportive gay brother (Laurie Kynaston)—as well as a dozen or so portraits of historic and fictional figures that regularly come to life to serve as her confidants and cheerleaders.

Johanna’s big break comes when she interviews for work with a London-based pop-culture magazine and lands a freelance gig thanks to sheer pluck and determination. Remaking herself with the help of a new name (Dolly Wilde), an eccentric wardrobe and red hair dye, she’s soon having the time of her life raving about the rock scene she’s never known before. She even has her first crush after meeting soulful singer John Kite (Alfie Allen). But then she makes a fangirl misstep and is able to salvage her career only by skewering the music scene she once praised.

Heading up the strong cast, Feldstein gives Johanna an indomitable spirit and a generally convincing Midlands accent. Behind the scenes, Oli Julian plays an indispensable role as composer of the flick’s original music.

Despite its inventiveness, the script eventually leads its heroine into a clichéd predicament, while the finale leaves us with a saccharine aftertaste. For the most part, though, Johanna’s makeover journey is a delightful and inspiring ride.

Rating: 4 starts (out of 5)

How to Build a Girl (rated R) opens May 8 at VOD outlets.

 

Author: Richard Ades

Richard Ades was the arts editor of The Other Paper, a weekly news-and-entertainment publication, from 2008 until it was shut down on Jan. 31, 2013. He also served as TOP's theater critic throughout its 22-year existence.

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