Johanna Morrigan is going to be a writer. She doesn’t know what she will write about, but she does know that the written word is her passion. This is what our protagonist tells us in the opening of Coky Giedroyc’s How to Build a Girl, the film adaptation of Caitlin Moran’s novel of the same name.
Beanie Feldstein plays the young, inexperienced, boy-crazy, and ambitious writer Johanna. Living a rich internal life gives Johanna the imagination and drive to picture a future outside of her small town and as a successful writer. The only problem is she just hasn’t found the right thing yet that will help her to achieve her dreams, that is until her brother suggests she respond to a London magazine’s call for new music writers.
Giedroyc’s film explodes with the personality and quirks that fuel writer Moran’s novel, who also wrote the screenplay. After having seen the film at the Toronto International Film Festival last year and witnessing first hand a glimpse of who Moran is, it is safe to say that How to Build a Girl on paper stays true to her nature, and visually Giedroyc translates what’s on the page to the screen with the visual flare that is worthy of Moran and her book.
Our protagonist Johanna is a semi-autobiographical version of Moran and in many ways a spiritual sister to Angus, Thongs, and Perfect Snogging protagonist, Georgia, who exhibits a lot of the same social anxieties and quirks that Johanna has. Except, what differentiates Johanna is her admirable belief and passion for writing. While Johanna is certainly still the boy-crazed teenage girl she proves to be in the opening of the film, her professional pursuits are what ultimately drive the film, relegating her sexual journey as a secondary plot-line. Getting a boyfriend is not her primary concern, instead, she is inspired by one Jo March (who makes a surprising cameo alongside other fictional and non-fictional heroes of Johanna) and pursues her one true love.
Feldstein is putting in a performance that is a far cry from her other high school portrayals in Booksmart and Lady Bird. Here she is tasked with playing the excited 16-year-old whose personal growth is neither quiet or nuanced. Let’s just say that everything Johanna goes through in the film is dramatic with a bold red exclamation point. Feldstein is also tasked with and absolutely succeeds in playing Johanna as unlikable and as the central antagonist of her own story. Johanna’s selfishness and shortsightedness are critical attributes to showcase the growth and learning that she still has to undergo as a young woman and as a human being. To play someone who does screw with her moral compass once or twice in the pursuit of success and acceptance requires an actress who neither plays her as irredeemable or without sympathy. Feldstein does both and so much more.
Alfie Allen’s John Kite is the cool and grounded anchor of the film that provides balance to Johanna’s rambunctious and precocious nature. His presence in Johanna’s journey grounds the film, with his scenes providing the bulk of emotion and heart of the story. While being grounded he is simultaneously a fantastical figure. John is this angelic presence that lightens up Johanna’s world, but also the human litmus test of Johanna’s corrupted moral compass. Feldstein and Allen’s natural chemistry with each other and the brilliant dialogue between them is beautiful to watch. When things go slightly awry, you can feel the weight of it.
Giedroyc and Moran balance a fair bit, whilst making a quirky and fast-moving teen dramedy, where the comedy hits as hard as the drama, they also give us a compelling character-driven tale. Moran’s protagonist is the making of her own troubles and the film adequately reflects a journey that we not only sympathise with, but relate to as well. Johanna’s is forced to reconcile with what her ambition and selfishness have cost herself and others, and has to learn to better herself. The creative duo truly emphasising the coming-of-age element of this tale. With a clear vision and imaginative approach, Giedroyc and Moran make a compelling case as to why How to Build a Girl should be considered one the best within its genre.
How to Build a Girl is an incredibly engaging, exciting, and entertaining film. It’s a whirlwind of comedy, heartache, and joy with Feldstein at the centre of it all giving us a complicated protagonist. Johanna Morrigan and her story have the makings to stand the test of the time alongside other tales of flawed but lovable protagonists. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with aforementioned Georgia and even the delightful disaster Bridget Jones. Feldstein is three-for-three with staring in instant coming-of-age classics, this time it is solely on her shoulders, and she delivers. Who allowed her to take our breath away?
How To Build A Girl is available on VOD on May 8th
by Ferdosa Abdi
Ferdosa (she/her) is a lifetime student of cinema. Three of her current favourite films are: Addams Family Values, Cinderella (2015), and Emma. (2020). On Twitter you can see her support women-led cinema, her ongoing love/hate relationship with Disney, her totally healthy obsession with Eva Green, and her great admiration for Guillermo del Toro.