Amazon UK film review: How to Build a Girl
Matthew Turner | On 27, Jul 2020Reading time: 3 mins
Director: Coky Giedroyc
Cast: Beanie Feldstein, Alfie Allen, Paddy Considine, Sarah Solemani
Watch How to Build a Girl online in the UK: Amazon Prime
Based on the bestselling memoir by Caitlin Moran, this coming-of-age comedy stars Booksmart’s Beanie Feldstein as Johanna Morrigan, an unpopular, working class Wolverhampton schoolgirl who reinvents herself as live-wire music journalist Dolly Wilde when she gets a job writing rock reviews for D&ME.
Feldstein plays Johanna with just the right mix of charm, sweetness, self-deprecation and obnoxiousness, managing to keep the character sympathetic even when she’s giving in to her own dark side and writing snarky hit-pieces to fuel her own popularity. In terms of the Wolverhampton accent, she just about pulls it off, or at least, she does as good a job of a Brummie accent as Renée Zellweger did of Home Counties English in Bridget Jones’ Diary.
The supporting cast are equally good. Paddy Considine comes close to stealing the film as her easygoing dad, who still has his own dreams of rock stardom, while Alfie Allen is very sweet as the improbably virtuous musician Johanna falls for while conducting her first interview. In addition, there’s strong work from Laurie Kynaston as Johanna’s gay older brother Kryssie and Joanna Scanlon makes the most of her few scenes as her put-upon English teacher, Mrs Belling.
The film’s best gimmick is Johanna’s Wall of Heroes, a series of pictures and photos on her bedroom wall that’s essentially a blatant excuse for a delightful parade of cameos that includes Lucy Punch (as Sylvia Plath), Lily Allen (Elizabeth Taylor), Michael Sheen (Sigmund Freud), Alexei Sayle (Karl Marx), Gemma Arterton (Maria Von Trapp), Jameela Jamil (Cleopatra) and Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc as Emily and Charlotte Bronte. Together, these characters provide an amusing Greek chorus of conflicting advice whenever Johanna asks them for help.
Clearly aware that she’s on to something, director Coky Giedroyc (sister of Mel) expands it still further, giving the film two of its best scenes, one involving Alfie Allen’s character, the other involving a poster of Bjork (Patsy Ferran) in a toilet. “Have you ever read On the Road?” she asks. “Don’t bother – it’s a very long book about a man getting a lift.”
The problem with the film is that it never really connects the way it should, both emotionally and in terms of the humour. Giedroyc’s direction is disappointingly tame throughout, constantly bottling out of doing anything interesting or edgy and instead settling for flat, dull versions of scenes we’ve seen many times before.
That’s a particular problem in a coming-of-age film, because Giedroyc fails to deliver on the two most expected elements: Johanna falling in love with music and her sexual awakening. For the first, Giedroyc settles for a bland sequence at a Manic Street Preachers concert and leaves it to Johanna’s writing to convey how she felt, while the second is reduced to a lame montage of experiences recounted to her brother, instead of making them part of the actual story.
The soundtrack is a bit of a disappointment too, despite the opportunity for a killer playlist of 1990s hits and misses. As a result, the film lacks a real sense of time and place, while also appearing to lack interest in its own main subject. Ultimately, this is a disappointingly patchy experience all around. How to Build a Girl has the odd good moment and some of the performances are fun, but it lacks the spark it needs to bring it to life.
How to Build a Girl is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.