After scraping around for what to watch for the last few weeks, it seems as though we’ve reached a stage in this cinema lockdown where the big boys are coming to the quarantine party. My next three reviews look set to be for high profile movies that I was always going to be watching in the theatre anyway, so the only difference here is my lack of stale popcorn and and an added abundance of blankets! The first in this trio is How To Build A Girl, a film that I had had my eye on for a while.
Based on the 2014 semi autobiographical novel by Caitlin Moran, How To Build A Girl tells the story of Johanna Morrigan, an witty, kindhearted Wolverhampton teenager living in early 1990s working class poverty who reinvents herself as ‘Dolly Wilde’, finding a job as a cynical, scathing music critic. Following the structure of other familiar coming of age narratives, the story takes Johanna/Dolly on a ride of discovery and maturity, with all of the expected family and romance related obstacles one expects to find in a true teenage story. Not having read the original novel, I went in to How To Build A Girl not known what to expect, but at the same time expecting to like it. Imagine my surprise, then, when I had to come to the conclusion that I well, just didn’t.
There is a lot of heart in this movie, but for some reason it just doesn’t work for me at all. The bones of a really great coming of age story are there, but the film feels so clumsy in its execution. The narrative calls for key tonal changes to address darker themes like self harm, bullying and even post natal depression, but everything is treated with such a light tough that the audience don’t get a suitable enough chance to feel the highs and lows of the content. Everything feels very ‘safe’ and measured, which serves to take away a lot of the edge and bite that a story like Johanna/Dolly’s could have had.
The film also suffers from a pacing problem. Our introduction to the protagonist and general world building in the first third is probably the best element of the film, but spending so much time on that leads to a rushed middle and an absolutely breakneck conclusion. The story is over before you know it, and as is the case with plenty of book to movie adaptations, it really feels like a mini-series’ worth of content was culled to cram in to a feature film package.
From Lady Bird to Booksmart, it’s safe to say that I would go to war for Beanie Feldstein, and whilst she seems like perfect casting for the role of Johanna, her battle with a Wolverhampton accent is a losing one. The charisma and physicality of the character is there and is spot on, but holy shit, Feldstein’s accent is one of the worst American to English attempts I’ve experienced in a long time. I literally had to pause the film after 20 minutes and make a cup of tea to fortify myself for the rest.
It’s a great shame, but the vaguely Australian/Irish/I don’t know what sounds are distracting to the point of taking you out of the movie. That is, of course, if you are familiar with a Wolverhampton accent in the first place. I’m sure that international audiences will have no problem, and will enjoy Feldstein’s performance for the endearing charisma that I mentioned. I was rooting for her the entire time, but at multiple points it verges on painful.
The accent struggle is only emphasised by the likes of Paddy Considine, Sarah Solemani and Laurie Kynaston, all of whom play members of Johanna’s family and all of whom produce great regional imitations. At the points when I was supposed to be investing in the narrative, all I could think about was how these seasoned actors, Alfie Allen, Emma Thompson, Chris O’Dowd etc, must have been thinking exactly the same thing that I was.
Overall, I take no pleasure in saying that How To Build A Girl is a bit of a mess. The heart and message is there, and there is definitely something ‘feel good’ about it, but there are just one too many flaws for me. I want to say that Beanie Feldstein gives a strong performance, but can that really be so if one of the defining character traits is so wide of the mark? I so wanted to love this, but it just didn’t work.