If you saw Booksmart, you probably didn’t look at Beanie Feldstein and think that she’d be able to slot into a naturalistic English dramedy set in the unfashionable city of Wolverhampton. Yet this is exactly what she does in How to Build a Girl, which opens at Ennis’ Galaxy Drive-In this weekend, though it’s also on streaming platforms as well if you don’t care to make the long trip. Either way, it expands your idea of what this bright young star can do.
She plays Johanna Morrigan, a 16-year-old who wants to be a writer more than anything in 1993. After a reading of her poetry on a live local TV show goes more disastrously than you can imagine, she recovers from that humiliation by landing a job as a rock critic for a London music zine, despite knowing little about rock music and having applied by reviewing the Annie soundtrack. Her first gig is writing up a Birmingham show by the Manic Street Preachers, after the music snob originally assigned to the review says, “I’m not really feeling regional right now.” The show changes her life, as she dyes her hair fiery red, adopts the pseudonym of Dolly Wilde, and starts bringing in much-needed income for her working-class family.
Caitlin Moran adapts the screenplay from her own semi-autobiographical novel, which I must admit I haven’t read. The film plays like an Englishwoman’s version of High Fidelity, something that God knows we could use. (From what I’ve seen of the current American TV version of Nick Hornby’s book, I’m not confident that that cuts it.) The details of Johanna’s teenage life in what the British call the Black Country ring true, like the pictures of role models on her wall whom she imagines advising her (Michael Sheen as Sigmund Freud, Lucy Punch as Sylvia Plath, Lily Allen as Elizabeth Taylor). Johanna’s frustrated musician dad (Paddy Considine) has a funny scene, too, when the authorities confront him about his illegal puppy mill, with his denials being undercut by the dozen or so border collie puppies who emerge from his front door.
What I like best is how Dolly gains traction at her workplace by taking up a scorched-earth, “you deserve to die for putting this steaming heap of an album in front of me” attitude in her criticism. That’s a great temptation for young critics, one that I’m quite familiar with, not least because it’s fun and it draws attention like no one’s business. As you get on, you realize its limitations. Indeed, Dolly is soon calling Joni Mitchell a horseface and recommending that Eddie Vedder follow Kurt Cobain’s example and shoot himself, because that’s where that road leads. The movie knows that while this is a necessary part of Johanna finding her voice, it’s also something that she needs to outgrow.
Less convincing is the back half of the film, when Johanna embraces the sex-and-drugs part of rock and roll and starts treating her friends and family like crap. In the hands of first-time filmmaker Coky Giedroyc, this happens too suddenly, and I really could have done without the Mary Tyler Moore-style redemptive ending, when Johanna receives a better job from an appreciative editor (Emma Thompson, dropping in for the briefest of cameos). Johanna uses Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women as a touchstone, and this only reminds us that Greta Gerwig’s film from last winter did a better job of showing how a girl becomes a writer.
Feldstein is the real deal, though, playing both the earnest bookworm at the beginning and the outsize oddball persona she adopts. I’d be remiss not to mention Alfie Allen, who post-Game of Thrones seems relieved at the chance to be smooth and charming as an upcoming Welsh rocker who spills his secrets to Dolly. (He can sing, too.) Still, it’s the short-statured Feldstein whose energy blows through whole scenes of this film. One of numerous cherishable bits here is when a boorish male colleague asks Dolly to sit on his lap, and she uses her physical heft to turn the tables on him. Feldstein keeps How to Build a Girl from becoming just another British movie about a downtrodden yob who overcomes the odds to make good. As we see Dolly surrendering to the ecstasy of hearing the Manic Street Preachers play “You Love Us,” you sense that she’ll be okay as long as she keeps in touch with this side of herself.
Starring Beanie Feldstein and Alfie Allen. Directed by Coky Giedroyc. Written by Caitlin Moran, based on her own novel. Rated R.