Caitlin Moran is kind of a big deal. A multi-award winning journalist, a highly influential feminist after her non-fiction book How To Be A Woman, and now a successful movie screenwriter as her novel How To Build A Girl Comes to the big screen. Or rather it would have, were it not for COVID19, instead the movie lands on Amazon Prime after it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year.
How To Build A Girl is the semi-autobiographical story of Johanna Morrigan, a 16-year-old from a big family growing up in Wolverhampton in the ‘90s. With How To Be A Woman and the TV series Raised By Wolves Moran has told stories of her childhood before but this particular version is centred on her early career as a music journalist. Johanna, played with considerable charm by Beanie Feldstein, is an idealistic teenager who is close to her musician father (Paddy Considine). She’s a gifted writer too and after she enters a reviewing competition writing about the Annie soundtrack she bags a role writing for music weekly D&Me – a stand-in for Melody Maker, which Moran herself began reviewing for when she was just 16.
A lone girl in a world of men, Johanna decides to reinvent herself as Dolly Wilde, a more confident and outrageous version of herself. Dolly learns quickly that in her field passion, honesty and enthusiasm aren’t anywhere near as prized as snark and mockery, churning out one liners like “Jump Around by House of Pain is the kind of music testicles would make” until Dolly becomes a celebrated a-hole.
How To Build a Girl is as much a love letter to the heyday of print entertainment journalism as it is a coming of age tale. Almost like a grungy Brit alternative to The Devil Wears Prada, it’s easy to see how anyone, not least a hard-up teenaged girl, would get seduced by the heady world of parties and awards, access all areas and screaming fans of your own. The dresses get more elaborate, the egos get bigger and something’s got to give.
This is way more than a tale of hubris though. Moran’s script is sharp and funny and peppered with some of her favourite themes – family, class, sex, wanking – and there’s a love story here too. Johanna’s first interview becomes her first major crush in the form of Alfie Allen’s John Kite – not the damaging rock star diva but a genuinely sweet musician played incredibly sympathetically by Allen.
It’s a positive female coming of age story in the vein of Booksmart, which Beanie Feldstein also starred in, and while How To Build A Girl doesn’t have quite as much quirk and flair as that film, director Coky Giedroyc has fun and ups the cameo count via the images of her heroes that adorn Johanna’s walls and offer her sage advice. Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc play the Bronte sisters, Michael Sheen is Sigmund Freud, Lily Allen is Elizabeth Taylor, while Gemma Arterton is an adorable Mari Von Trapp. What she also nails is the very specific intoxicating danger of being a young woman in a world of powerful blokes.
For the most part How To Build a Girl is a good-natured bit of wish fulfilment but where it’s at its strongest is in its absolute refusal to allow Johanna/Dolly, to ever accept a victim role. Her mistakes are her own and she will take responsibility for them in her own way, and the toxic posh boys who run the paper and think they own the world don’t get to define and objectify her in the way they think they can. Feldstein sells the role absolutely. Johanna is joyful and exuberant, arrogant but self-aware (there’s a great bit where she finds herself left off a guest list and exclaims “Don’t you know who I thought I was six weeks ago?!”), and Feldstein even manages to nail the Wolves accent. As a coming-of-age comedy, How To Build A Girl is sweet and funny but as a look at how Moran began to construct the woman she wanted to become, this could have been called Caitlin Begins.