Teenage nerd reinvents herself in spirited British comedy

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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.

 

Girl meets rodeo veteran in tale of teenage desperation

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Amber Havard plays Kris, a troubled Texas teen with hopes of becoming a bull rider. (Photos courtesy of Samuel Goldwin Films)

By Richard Ades

Tough but touching, Bull is the story of a girl’s coming of age amid the direst of conditions. It’s also the story of her unlikely relationship with an aging rodeo performer, as well as a window into a subculture most of us know nothing about.

Kris (Amber Havard) is a 14-year-old living on the outskirts of Houston with her grandmother and younger sister while she waits for her mother to serve out a prison term. Mostly left on her own, she has a tendency to get into the kind of trouble that suggests she’ll eventually follow in her mom’s self-destructive footsteps.

One such incident lands Kris on the bad side of neighbor Abe (Rob Morgan), a former rodeo bull rider who lives next door. Hobbled by years’ worth of injuries, Abe can no longer ride, but he stubbornly clings to his old life by serving as one of the daredevils who race into the ring to divert bulls’ attention away from fallen contestants.

Despite being mad at Abe for forcing her to make amends by doing chores, Kris quickly becomes fascinated by his former occupation. When she sees him training teenage boys how to ride bulls, she begs him to let her try and soon seizes on bull riding as her ticket to a better life.

That sounds like the making of a happy, not to mention sappy, ending, but director/co-writer Annie Silverstein has no intention of giving her characters easy solutions. Abe and Kris are too complicated for that, as are their problems.

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Despite his injuries, Abe (Rob Morgan) still clings to the rodeo, where he was once a successful competitor.

Abe is too bitter over life’s setbacks to willingly serve as Kris’s surrogate father, and she’s not looking for one anyway. She clearly craves male companionship, but—perhaps taking after her mother—she appears to be drawn to “bad boys.”

She first gloms onto a mischief-making teen named Daryl (Reece McClure), but she soon transfers her attention to Billy (Steven Boyd), an adult who turns out to be just as unscrupulous as he seems. Savvy performances by leads Morgan and Havard, sensitively captured by director Silverstein, make the consequences both harrowing and moving.

Though they’re very different films, it’s hard not to compare Bull with Chloe Zhao’s The Rider (2017). Each exposes us to a part of Western culture that’s often overlooked—Native American cowboys in the earlier film, black cowboys in this one. And each deals with a man whose health challenges keep him from plying his chosen career.

Both films are great, but Bull gets the edge due to its absorbing tale of two lonely people who need each other far more than they’re willing to admit.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Bull opens May 1 through VOD outlets. The film is not rated but contains rough language and brief instances of sexual content, nudity and drug use.