tue 04/08/2020

How to Build a Girl review - riotous fun | reviews, news & interviews

How to Build a Girl review - riotous fun

How to Build a Girl review - riotous fun

Caitlin Moran’s film debut is a hilarious ode to self-love

Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein) dreams of a better life away from Wolverhampton

Ever felt like you could express yourself more freely, if only you could get away from everything that made you who are? British romcom How to Build a Girl tackles this paradox in joyful fashion, using the 90s music scene as the backdrop for a journey of self-discovery, via every embarrassing mistake it’s possible to make.

Based on Caitlin Moran’s semi-autobiographical novel, the film follows aspiring teen writer Johanna Morrigan, who dreams of leaving her Wolverhampton council estate for the bright lights of London. After winning the chance to review Manic Street Preachers for D&ME magazine, she discovers the exciting, dog-eat-dog world of music journalism. But to make her way in the industry, she must transform from wide-eyed innocent into the merciless gatekeeper and lady sex-adventurer Dolly Wilde. Clearly, a very different world from film journalism…

Leading this charge into debauchery is Beanie Feldstein, who follows in the footsteps of Renee Zellweger as a yank succeeding in a thoroughly British role. Feldstein delivers a tour-de-force performance as Johanna, perhaps the only actor who could find dignity while wearing a plastic bag swimsuit. Though it occasionally sounds like she struggles to get her mouth around the Wolves accent (not helped by the fact she narrates most scenes), her abilities as both a comic and dramatic performer means it never distracts for long.Beanie Feldstein in How to Build a GirlMore confident in voice is Alfie Allen, who plays Johanna’s Welsh love interest John Kite. As a Welshman myself, I never imagined a Blackwood accent could improve a man’s chances, but Allen brings an appealing pathos to those husky Valleys tones. Although, to call him Johanna’s primary love interest isn’t wholly accurate – the main plot is Johanna learning to love herself. This is reflected in John’s role as a manic pixie boy, effortlessly cool, mysterious yet vulnerable, and only there to provide the cherry on top of Johanna’s story. A classic romcom function, but with a modern, gender-swapped twist.

In fact, much of How to Build a Girl reflects the best of Britpop songwriting – borrowing liberally from decades-old genres, but with enough deft writing, magnetic performances and straight swagger to sweep you along. Instead of cribbing the stylings of Ray Davies and Paul Weller, Moran looks to the work of Fielding, Curtis and Chadha. That’s not to call the film derivative, however; as proven by her series Raised by Wolves, Moran specialises in crafting absurd comic sequences with a hidden soft heart.

Director Coky Giedroyc does a stellar job at bringing the book to life, returning to the big screen after 20 years in television. From little camera flourishes to full dream sequences, there’s a boundless energy and imagination to the film’s presentation. This is on full display with Johanna’s wall of historic icons, from the Brontës to Marx, who offer somewhat questionable advice to our lead’s problems. No spoilers, but much fun stems from figuring out who’s playing who.

Complete with references to Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine and Sultans of Pin F.C, How to Build a Girl is designed as a big dose of nostalgia for those halcyon days of 90s excess. But in lockdown Britain, the sight of packed music venues seems a surreal and forbidden thing, and you might instead find yourself longing for the sticky floors, ringing ears and watery pints of just four months ago.

At its denouement, the film struggles to fend off the cheesier clichés: the big proclamation of love; the reconciliations; the neat, happy ending. For a film that’s all about being yourself, the final scenes feel obligatory to the genre rather than true to the story. But despite this minor, cynical quibble, How to Build a Girl is still a terrifically funny addition to the British romcom canon.

@OwenRichards91

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