In 2014, journalist-cum-satirist Caitlin Moran released her semi-autobiographical novel How to Build a Girl, the tale of Johanna Morrigan, a young woman with grand aspirations whose upbringing—her large family lives on a council estate in Wolverhampton in the West Midlands—mirrors Moran’s. The book, like so much of Moran’s work, stays light on its feet without betraying itself as Johanna comes of age, ditches her personality and adopts a new one, and buckles under the pressure inherent in growing up much too fast. It’s a serious work with a comic sensibility, often hilarious but always eye-opening.
Coky Giedroyc’s How to Build a Girl, a half-assed semi-adaptation of Moran’s semi-autobiography, replaces everything that makes the novel worth reading with irritating twists on sterling material. 2020 hasn’t been much of a year for the movies, so maybe declaring How to Build a Girl one of its great disappointments doesn’t mean much. Then again, if How to Build a Girl was only disappointing it’d be an improvement, but two hours of easily the single worst performance of Beanie Feldstein’s career constitutes less of a letdown and more an infraction against cinema, not to mention Moran.
Bafflingly, the insult the film deals Moran’s work is her own: She wrote the script. To its credit, clumsy structure and run-walk pacing share the blame for How to Build a Girl’s obnoxious asymmetry with Giedroyc’s direction: The film appears to be built for maximum chafing, comprising mismatched parts scavenged from other, better movies. (Such as Marielle Heller’s Diary of a Teenage Girl, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie and Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, with a little bit of Edgar Wright and Laurie Nunn sprinkled on top.) Giedroyc has energy, no denying that, but it’s misspent on the tweest possible interpretation of her source material.
The basics remain intact, with Johanna (Morrigan) narrating to the audience her hopes and dreams contrasting with her reality. She’s shy, bookish, naive, stuck in a shell she’s made of the fiction she loves, which the film lays out for viewers via a wall collage of her favorite literary characters alongside her real-world heroes. How lucky to be advised by Sigmund Freud (Michael Sheen), Sylvia Plath (Lucy Punch) and Elizabeth Taylor (Lily Allen) as she bumbles through secondary school before falling face-first into a plum gig writing savage album reviews for popular music magazine Disc and Music Echo under the pen name Dolly Wilde. Fawning musician spotlights, like the piece Johanna writes about her crush, John Kite (Alfie Allen), won’t pass muster for the assholes at D&ME, but dry British insult criticism pays, so dry British insult criticism she writes.
On the page, How to Build a Girl takes deliberate steps to underscore how far in over her head Johanna is as Dolly. On screen, no such effort is taken: She just turns into a smirking egotist overnight, and Feldstein’s already awful work playing Johanna grows doubly grating. To an extent the viewer has to turn on Johanna-Dolly, but to an equal extent they need a reason to reserve empathy for her. How to Build a Girl sees Feldstein in such poor form that hanging onto positive feelings for Johanna at any point in the film, either well before or long after she adopts her Dolly persona, is nearly a Herculean feat. It’s not that Johanna isn’t sympathetic. It’s that Feldstein, who should be able play parts like this in her sleep, hams it up so much with her store-brand British accent and slapstick naivety that she nearly wears out her welcome within the first five minutes. When Dolly enters the fray, her work goes from “wearying” to “intolerable.”
Why did Moran butcher her own writing and let Giedroyc stitch her story back together as a movie this misshapen? Giedroyc’s take on Moran’s vision promises us nothing fresh and keeps its promise. Johanna Morrigan deserves better.
Director: Coky Giedroyc
Writer: Caitlin Moran
Starring: Beanie Feldstein, Alfie Allen, Paddy Considine, Lucy Punch, Michael Sheen, Lily Allen, Gemma Arterton, Sharon Horgan, Catherine Tate, Sarah Solemani, Arinze Kene, Frank Dillane, Tadhg Murphy
Release Date: May 8, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.