GFF Exclusive Review: How to Build a Girl

Year: 2019
Runtime: 102 Minutes
Director: Coky Giedroyc
Writer: Caitlin Moran
Stars: Beanie Feldstein, Alfie Allen, Paddy Considine, Emma Thompson, Lucy Punch, Jameela Jamil

By Calum Cooper

Closing the 2020 Glasgow Film Festival is Coky Giedroyc’s adaptation of Caitlin Moran’s “How to Build a Girl” (2019). With a festival that has produced so many great new films by female filmmakers and has advocated diversity in cinema since its inception, it’s appropriate to have the closing film concern the journey of a maturing young woman – the building of a girl if you will. The end result film that is flawed, but nonetheless mature and fun.

Beanie Feldstein is one of the most delightful people walking the earth right now, and her role in this film continues to prove this. Putting on a surprisingly good Warwickshire accent, she is Johanna Morigan, a sixth former who aspires to great things, looking to her wall of heroes – including Jo March, Maria von Trapp and Karl Marx – for guidance. A skilled writer, she submits a review for the “Annie” soundtrack at a weekly music magazine to buy back the family TV. Though initially baffled by this, the magazine eventually hires Johanna where Johanna dons the pen name Dolly Wilde to take her sudden new career to new, and life learning, heights.

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Moran’s book of the same name is semi-autobiographical in nature, with Moran’s own journey through the music criticism industry providing inspiration for Johanna’s. It is framed in the classic coming-of-age genre, playing with various tropes and comedic styles that often lend themselves to the genre. All the while the story flows at a surprisingly breakneck pace via a young woman’s eyes. The end result is a flawed, but a nonetheless charismatic picture with plenty to say on the importance of integrity.

“Beanie Feldstein is one of the most delightful people walking the earth right now, and her role in this film continues to prove this.”

Johanna’s character arc is a known one – the good girl gone bad. She starts off nerdy and friendless, but nonetheless passionate, arguably too much so, and kind-hearted. So much so that her enthusiasm for the Annie soundtrack in her review is looked down upon by the smug, pretentious men that make up her editing team. But when a piece she writes about rising musician John Kite (Alfie Allen) is slanted by these men as reading like it was by a teenage girl – Johanna’s amusing defence being she is a teenage girl – she begins to embrace her inner cynicism, producing harsh criticism that targets not just the artistry but the artists themselves, a line that should never be crossed when producing any kind of criticism.

Johanna may not have steeped this low had she not been pressured to bury her bubbly personality. This is where the film’s primary observations on maintaining integrity in the face of cynicism become front and centre. Leading the charge to this idea is Feldstein’s vivacious performance. No matter the role she can resonate off the screen in a way only a seldom few can. Feldstein is as endlessly charismatic as ever, playing a character that’s occasionally frustrating but always engaging. The film would not have worked nearly as well without her.

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What also distinguishes “How to Build a Girl” is its breakneck pacing. It’s narratively meatier than one would initially expect, with many key developments happening in rapid succession one after another. Johanna goes from lonely schoolgirl to Pauline Kael levels of recognition in virtually no time at all. This runs parallel to the comedic style, which is often quick-fire in its wit and humour, a trademark of Moran’s article writing. There are plenty of humorous beats spread across the film, all of which give an animated feel to the story and those who occupy it.

“How to Build a Girl” has a lot going on in its favour. It may perhaps be a bit overstuffed for some tastes, but its heart is consistently in the right place in spite of this.”

Yet this is somewhat of a double-edged sword. The pacing allows for flair, but occasionally lessens the impact of potentially key moments. While the character arc is clear and fairly concise, Johanna comes off as overly patronising during the latter half of the film. She’s never unlikeable, but she teeters dangerously close to the line at instances. Meanwhile, the narrative can become clustered with the conveyor belt style of events we’re being treated to, all on top of numerous characters and cameos.

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But when all is said and done, “How to Build a Girl” has a lot going on in its favour. It may perhaps be a bit overstuffed for some tastes, but its heart is consistently in the right place in spite of this. The audience that was present seemed to respond very positively, so perhaps this review is a case of cynicism clouding judgement. Regardless, “How to Build a Girl” has enough charm under its belt to make a viewing worthwhile via its magnetic lead performance, comedic abilities, and powerful thematic lessons. After all, the importance of integrity is a wonderful message to close such a diverse film festival with.

3 stars

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