Film review:How to Build a Girl

This adaptation of Caitlin Moran's novel is flawed but fun - and Beanie Feldstein shines, says Linda Marric


Beanie Feldstein puts in an outstanding turn in charming new coming of age comedy How To Build A Girl. Adapted from Caitlin Moran’s best selling novel of the same name, the film is written by Moran herself - with help from author John Niven - and directed by prolific TV director Coky Giedroyc (Penny Dreadful, The Killing, Harlots).

In the early 1990s,  Johanna Morrigan (Feldstein) a bright, quirky 16-year-old uses her vivid imagination to escape her humdrum life on a Wolverhampton council estate  by living out her creative fantasies. Desperate to move away from the overcrowded flat she shares with her siblings and eccentric parents, Johanna submits a music review to a weekly rock magazine - think NME or Melody Maker - and is over the moon when she’s invited to the offices for an job interview.

Having initially been brushed off by the publication’s mostly male writing staff and management, Johanna later secures a weekly column writing about gigs and up-and-coming indie bands. While her earnest and mostly positive reviews are mocked by her peers, the teenager starts writing scathing reviews which soon get her noticed by indie rock fans.

With any literary adaptation by the its original author, there is always a fine line between trying to stay true to one’s original text and the risk of being too precious about said text to allow the film to stand on its own two feet.  Here, Moran who is undeniably a great writer and fantastic storyteller, sadly fails to replicate the same sense of teenage angst and jubilation which ran so beautifully through her book.

Tonally, Giedroyc’s film is too uneven and rough around the edges when it broaches some very serious themes, especially those relating to workplace sexual harassment and abuse of power. This wouldn’t be such a big problem had the story itself presented a more exciting narrative arc for its main protagonist.

There is a degree of predictability here which sadly stops How To Build A Girl from being the film it deserves to be. More importantly, Moran’s characters for me often felt a little too caricatural to ring completely true, which is rather puzzling coming from someone who usually radiates authenticity and freedom of spirit.

Ultimately, it is Feldstein herself who makes this into so much more than your average coming of age story. Her ability to capture a certain British working class sensibility won’t be lost on anyone. The American actor delivers each line with courage and, astonishingly, in the most convincing Black Country accent. 

Elsewhere, Alfie Allen (Game of Thrones) puts in a gorgeously understated and impressively measured performance as a singer/songwriter who becomes Johanna’s object of affection, while Paddy Considine is faultless as Pat, Johanna’s crafty failed musician father.

Overall, this is a charming and robustly acted, if not perfect, adaptation of a much loved novel. How To Build A Girl manages to capture a precious moment in time, a time before social media and smartphones and where picking up one’s favourite music weekly magazine was an event in itself.  Ultimately this epehemeral quality makes up for the film’s many flaws.


How To Build A Girl will be released on Amazon Prime Video on July 24.

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