“I know the impact of a good book,” notes Johanna Morrigan, the schoolgirl protagonist of How to Build a Girl, upon being clonked on the head with her own copy of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch by one of her many classroom detractors. The moment honours star Beanie Feldstein’s breakout in another bookish-girl coming-of-age comedy, Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart (2019), but also nods at Greer’s status as a woman combining outspoken feminism and unapologetic brashness. At 16, Johanna is also clever, loud, and indignantly aware of the limitations imposed by her sex. “This is why women have been oppressed throughout history,” she tells her little brother when he finds her scrubbing bloodstains out of her underwear. “Until the twin tub was invented, we were too busy scrubbing to agitate for the vote.”
Many British viewers will be aware that this species of verbose witticism – along with Johanna’s flamboyantly eccentric upbringing in the never-fashionable West Midlands, the idiosyncratic sartorial style she adopts as she becomes well-known, and her trajectory from precocious music journalism to the heart of the UK media establishment – is the stock-in-trade of the writer of How to Build a Girl, Caitlin Moran, who adapted it from her semi-autobiographical 2014 novel of the same name. A columnist for the Times, Moran has previously explored her own backstory in her bestselling 2011 feminist manifesto How to Be a Woman, and in the TV comedy series Raised by Wolves (2013).
This version, directed by Coky Giedroyc, takes the structural conventions of the superstar biopic, and shrinks them to fit a beloved but now-defunct corner of British print media: the weekly ‘inky’ music press. An exceptional talent is recognised; the talented one, excessively indulged, goes off the rails; resulting crises humble the talented one; obscurity threatens, but the spell of humility is finally rewarded by even greater success.
Advised by her English teacher (Joanna Scanlan) to “rein it in a bit”, Johanna does the opposite. She takes her teenage ramblings into the public sphere, winning attention, money and acclaim, but also rendering herself vulnerable in ways she could not have foreseen. Bedazzled by peer pressure and pervasive sexism, Johanna betrays her own values by becoming a hatchet-job merchant – in the process hurting a burgeoning relationship with one of the few authentic people she has encountered, musician John Kite (Alfie Allen).
The showy nom de plume under which she does all of this – Dolly Wild – indicates the self-betrayal that can attend precocious success. In search of an authentic outlet for her energy and passion, Johanna instead falls into tropes: she becomes a ‘dolly’, dressed up to fit an archetype; and ‘wild’, up for performative but unsatisfying sex. Her vocation, too, is a fake one, since her interest in music is fairly minimal. Johanna-as-Dolly ODs on pride; a fall is inevitable.
One duly comes – although the film rather smudges any lessons Johanna is supposed to have learned about hubris when it returns with added insistence to her extreme specialness. “We were passing this around the office like drugs or a baby,” gushes the magazine editor (Emma Thompson) to whom Johanna submits an autobiographical piece; in writing for the music press, she goes on, Johanna has been making herself “an Olympic swimmer in a bathtub”. This is a bit much, and contradicts the relatability of both the title and the closing you-can-do-it monologue. After all, it isn’t an option for many people to ‘build’ themselves by leveraging an exceptional talent into a job available to almost none.
Another peculiarity is that a film that opens with a promise not to have its heroine motivated by boys goes on to position Johanna’s relationship with John Kite as its chief emotional preoccupation. Indeed, barring extensions of her own psyche in the form of photographs that talk back to her from her bedroom wall – Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Taylor, Björk – relationships between Johanna and other women are conspicuous by their absence. The English teacher who notices both Johanna’s talents and her weaknesses goes unacknowledged, and Johanna shows little interest in the travails of her downtrodden mother.
But if some of its internal contradictions leap from the screen, so too does this film’s bubbly, puppyish energy. Laugh-out-loud lines are many, and Feldstein is unstintingly fun to watch – even making a decent fist of the Wolverhampton accent.