Producers: Alison Owen and Debra Hayward Director: Coky Giedroyc Screenplay: Caitlin Moran Cast: Beanie Feldstein, Alfie Allen, Paddy Considine, Sarah Solemani, Laurie Kynaston, Joanna Scanlan, Mel Giedroyc, Chris O’Dowd, Emma Thompson, Michael Sheen, Lily Allen, Alexei Sayle, Sue Perkins, Gemma Arterton, Jameela Jamil, Lucy Punch, Sharon Horgan and Andi Oliver Distributor: IFC Films
Presumably Caitlin Moran intended Johanna Morrigan, the protagonist of the screenplay she fashioned from her semi-autobiographical novel, to be a sympathetic character, and certainly Coky Giedroyc, who directs in hectic style, and Beanie Feldstein, who plays Johanna ebulliently (some would say manically), strive to make her likable. In the end, however, “How to Build a Girl” fails to convince us that the young woman is as engaging as the makers apparently hoped she would be.
Johanna is introduced as an overweight, put-upon sixteen-year old living in the Wolverhampton section of London in the mid-nineties. Living with a dad (Paddy Considine), a never-was, would-be rocker who tries to keep the family afloat by running a puppy farm and a mother (Sarah Solemani) beaten down by her domestic demands, the girl dreams of winning acceptance from the classmates who perpetually browbeat and humiliate her. Her only consolation comes from her brother Krissi (Laurie Kynaston), just on the edge of coming out, with whom she shares a room, and the posters she keeps on the walls, whose featured celebrities frequently become animated in order to offer advice.
In her insatiable desire to improve her lot, Johanna submits a poem to a contest on a local TV show, and wins—and though her appearance on the tube with a flustered host (Chris O’Dowd, in an amusing cameo) proves a mixed blessing, it encourages her to continue writing. She submits a review of one of her favorite albums—the Broadway show “Annie”—to a weekly music magazine, and the staff of oh-so-cool twenty-something guys take her on staff as a joke.
But Johanna seizes the opportunity to reinvent herself as Dolly Wilde, a red-haired, top-hat-wearing, fishnet-garbed cynic whose trashing of rock groups makes her a star herself, giving her the opportunity to grow up fast—which includes taking the opportunity to have easy sex. Her proclivity to provoke kicks in even after she’s assigned to interview John Kite (Alfie Allen), a handsome but fragile singer she falls hopelessly in love with. That won’t stop her from revealing details about him that he’d prefer to remain unpublished, though.
Needless to say, Johanna will eventually realize the error of her ways and seek reconciliation with those she’s wronged—particularly Kite. The sharpness of the earlier portion of the picture gives way, in the end, to something very much like schmaltz, and the character never really seems to earn redemption.
Still, there are amusing elements in the film. O’Dowd’s turn is complemented by a charming turn from Kynaston, whose sounding-board brother provides good contrast to Feldstein’s hyperactive sister, and a nice one from Allen, who makes Kite far more likable than Johanna is. And while Considine and Solemani can’t do much with their underwritten roles, the advertisement-come-to-life gimmick gives clever, if brief, opportunities to guest stars like Michael Sheen (Freud), Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc (the Bronte sisters), Lily Allen (Elizabeth Taylor), Lucy Punch (Sylvia Plath), Gemma Arterton (Maria von Trapp) and Sharon Horgan (Jo March). Emma Thompson also shows up at the close to exhibit her usual spiky manner.
In technical terms, “How to Build a Girl” is also first-rate. Amanda McArthur’s production design and Stephanie Collie’s costumes are spot-on for the time, Hubert Taczanowski contributes spiffy cinematography, and editors Gary Doliner and Gareth C. Scales work with director Giedroyc to keep the movie moving at a breakneck pace—something that Feldstein, of course, enhances with her hyperkinetic performance (and motor-mouthed delivery, complete with convincing accent). Oli Julian’s original score adds to the energy level, but it’s really the collection of pop songs from the nineties that adds the needed aural punch (the music supervisor was Nick Angel).
But despite all Giedroyc’s cinematic flamboyance and Feldstein’s undoubted commitment, the picture is let down by its unsympathetic central character.