There’s something oddly Dickensian to How to Build a Girl, the screen adaptation of Caitlin Moran’s semi-autobiographical novel, a funny yet heartfelt coming of age story that’s partly about the dangers of allowing yourself to feel ashamed of your origins. It adds a timelessness to a story that is otherwise very specific to its setting of the music journalism scene of the early ‘90s, a time when magazines were dominant forces in the cultural landscape and even a casual contract with one would pay the rent.
Into this world steps the initially unassuming Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein), a 16 year old from Wolverhampton desperate to escape her dull town for the adventurous promise of London. Winning a competition to write for a fictionalised version of NME, Johanna gets assigned to a series of Midlands gigs, before reaching a career crossroads upon an encounter with dreamy Welsh singer-songwriter John Kite (Alfie Allen). Her gushing review/interview is seen by the boy’s club of the magazine offices as the uncool ramblings of a smitten little girl, prompting Johanna to change tacks and become the cruellest music critic in the business.
Moran’s script, adapting her own novel, handles Johanna’s journey through this world with a sharp wit, picking up on all the little details of a shifting, cracking persona – Johanna even gets some ‘serious woman’ glasses to accompany her new writing style. Feldstein makes for a charming lead, too, though her Wolverhampton accent, while not exactly bad, does become a bit of an obstacle to her performance. Slotting more easily into the Black Country milieu, and pretty much stealing the film, is Paddy Considine as Johanna’s loving, if slightly delusional, ex-musician dad Pat. Considine is a consistently warm and funny presence, and often gifted with the funniest one-liners.
Elsewhere, there’s a bevy of wonderful cameos – it’s hard to imagine any UK stars saying no to Moran – from Bob Mortimer as an awards-show host to Emma Thompson as a classy magazine editor to the litany of famous faces playing fantastical versions of Johanna’s heroes. We see the world through Johanna’s day-dreaming eyes from the very first scene, and she continues to imagine up conversations with celebrities and long-dead figures throughout.
This fantasy element allows director Coky Giedroyc to cycle through stylistic and visual ideas and, even if not all of them land, most are fun and funny enough to keep up the rollicking pace she sets. Eventually, though, the fantasy starts to bleed too heavily into the reality, with the strange balance between Johanna’s school life by day and high-profile career by night not quite ringing true. This storybook element may well be the point, but it does stymie the attempts at more profound emotion when Johanna is forced to reckon with the ways in which she’s rejected and mistreated her family.
You also end up wishing that there was more of a real sense of place of ‘90s London and the Midlands, especially when you look at another recent coming-of-age story like Lady Bird, which managed to be a transportive period piece set in 2002. Here, the only real scene-setting is in the crappy TVs and electric typewriters, but this kind of time-sensitive story needs more in the way of detail and atmosphere.
A lot of these problems, though, are worse on paper than they are in practice, and an abundance of good-natured laughs makes sure that How to Build a Girl is a winningly entertaining offering, though it could certainly have used a stronger directorial voice.