“I’ve read every book in this library,” says frustrated 16-year-old Johanna Morrigan in the opening scene of “How to Build a Girl.” “But I can’t find a story about a girl like me.” That line sets up the movie even as it winks at the audience, which knows it’s about to see a movie about a girl exactly like Johanna.
And that means it’s about a girl a lot like Caitlin Moran, a British journalist and broadcaster who wrote the script based on her own semi-autobiographical novel about her days as a teenage rock critic in the early 1990s. Think of it as “Almost Famous” 20 years later, if Cameron Crowe had been British and female – and much, much snottier.
“How to Build a Girl,” which premieres on demand on Friday, May 8 after losing its IFC theatrical release to the coronavirus, is the first theatrical feature in 24 years for Coky Giedroyc, who has spent the past two decades working on television shows like “Harlots,” “Oliver Twist,” “Blackpool” and “Penny Dreadful.” The film manages to overcome some whiplash-inducing storytelling as long as you cut it some slack – which most people will be inclined to do, because it’s also a breezy and funny showcase for Beanie Feldstein, who’s done her share of coming-of-age comedies over the last few years and this time moves her act to the British town of Wolverhampton.
That means that Feldstein, who’s playing a character about a decade younger than the actress is, not only learned to speak in a distracting but necessary British Midlands accent but to imitate Scooby Doo in one.
The opening credits say the film is “based on a true(ish) story,” and it follows the rough outlines of Moran’s teenage years as she described them in the book. But a lot of that book was fictionalized, and the movie veers away from the book in additional ways – so it’s probably safe to think that the (ish) is every bit as important as the true.
Johanna Morrigan, the Moran stand-in, is a bright high-school overachiever who’s sure she’s going to be a writer someday, though she isn’t sure what kind of writer she’ll be. When her teacher asks for a five-page essay, Johanna writes 33 pages – but for all her academic zeal, her social skills are abysmal, and her daily life is a series of small and large humiliations.
Back home in a cramped house with her mother, father and four brothers, Johanna turns for inspiration to the wall above her bed, on which she’s taped photos of her heroes who, conveniently, come to life and give her advice. (It’s not always good advice, but still.) The icons include Elizabeth Taylor, the Bronte Sisters, Sigmund Freud, Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music” and Sylvia Plath, who are played by Lily Allen, Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, Michael Sheen, Gemma Arterton and Lucy Punch, respectively; others, like David Bowie and Frida Kahlo, remain photos on the wall.
The “what kind of writer am I going to be?” question is answered, improbably enough, when Johanna answers an ad by a music magazine by sending them an impassioned review of the soundtrack to “Annie.” Thinking it’s a put-on, the hipper-than-thou staff calls her in for an interview and laughs at her – but after a ladies-room pep talk from a poster of Bjork, Johanna storms back into the office and lands an assignment to review a Manic Street Preachers concert.
Even more improbably, the magazine – the fictional D&ME, meant as a stand-in for British music rags like NME and Melody Maker, the latter of which gave Moran her start – lets her get away with a review that begins, “At 9 p.m. last night, rock ‘n’ roll meant nothing to me. By midnight it was the most important thing in my life.” (And she’s serious: This is a “rock critic” who, we are told, had never listened to the Rolling Stones.)
But aided by a thrift-shop fashion makeover accomplished on a budget of nine pounds and set to Bikini Kill’s punk anthem “Rebel Girl,” the suddenly confident Johanna Morrigan turns into “Dolly Wilde,” rock journalist. In short order, Dolly is making lots of money, a nifty trick when the publication is paying you 10p a word for record and concert reviews.
(Full disclosure: I was once a teenage rock critic myself, and I was broke when I made about 10 cents a word for L.A. Times record reviews.)
But things are going well for Johanna until she decides she wants to write features, too – and on a trip to Dublin to interview a hot singer named John Kite (“Game of Thrones” star Alfie Allen, oozing irresistible emo sincerity), she falls head over heels in love. Her resulting story may be well written, but it’s so gushy that Johanna stops getting assignments from D&ME, which much prefers snark to gush.
But Johanna is nothing if not adaptable, and if she needs to rebuild Dolly Wilde as an acid-tongued monster, so be it. With a new credo – “A nice girl gets nowhere, but a bitch can make a comeback” – Johanna/Dolly reemerges with an endless supply of withering put-downs and an array of headlines that include “Bohemian Crapsody” and “Hello and F— Off!”
Reinvented as the bad girl of rock journalism, Dolly becomes a star in short order – but hell, everything in the movie happens in short order. She’s mean to everybody off the page, too, walking out of school and humiliating her parents because she pays the rent. She also has lots of very enthusiastic sex, which is kind of disconcerting: If the film wants to make a statement about body positivity and a healthy attitude toward sex, maybe the good Johanna should get a turn, too.
In truth, “Dolly” is a terrible rock critic who also rips her colleagues for not believing what they write, an ironic criticism coming from a person who saved her own career by choosing to hate everybody. The more Johanna becomes an unfeeling beast, the clearer it is that the movie is bound to go looking for her heart – it’s just a little surprising when it comes as quickly as it does, immediately after she trashes virtually everybody in her life.
Then again, the entire story unfolds with questionable alacrity: Johanna reinvents herself three times in about an hour, and Feldstein pretty much sells it every time, partly because things never slow down long enough for you to start questioning what’s going on. “I became evil,” Johanna tells her wall of heroes, “but it’s July now, and I’m over it.”
If you stop look at it too closely, “How to Build a Girl” definitely doesn’t ring true, not that it’s always supposed to; at the same time, the way it rushes from silly to vicious to sappy can put you in a tonal whirl. But it’s also fun, and not insignificant in the way it puts an unconventional heroine on screen and then gives her the agency to act both stupid and smart as she sees fit.
After all, you don’t have to buy the details of this particular story to understand that it’s a good thing to have it in the library.