A new year, a new vow to choose better for the blog collab (you can see how we did in 2020 here). We did some good work last year, don’t get me wrong but Jill and I have agreed to try and be a bit more discerning when it comes to picking our weekly films. Although there will most definitely be a Shark month and hopefully a trashy horror one too – we’re still interested in exploring Black and world cinema, LGBT+ films and films by women. You know, the best films.
We start well (hopefully) with this little number, based on the novel written by Caitlin Moran, a woman with whom I have a complicated relationship. On one hand I didn’t mind this novel – and I really like Raised by Wolves – on the other, her particular brand of feminism doesn’t always work for me. Plus, she’s bloody annoying.
Anyway, Beanie Feldstein.
How to Build a Girl (2019)
A teenager living with her working-class family on a council estate in Wolverhampton, England, grows up to become a popular but conflicted music journalist.
Johanna Morrigan is an unfulfilled teen living in Wolverhampton in the nineties with four siblings, mum and dad. There’s no money to be found anywhere and very little by way of prospects in her eyes – or romantic heroes for that matter. Our girl’s only true friends, apart from brother Krissi (Laurie Kynaston), are the literary characters glued to her bedroom walls. Not that she’s even got her own bedroom, just a segment to call her own.
Jo dreams of escaping her grey existence for a better life as a famous writer – and when she wins a place in a televised poetry competition, her fantasy seems a little closer. Unfortunately, overwhelmed by nerves, she royally humiliates herself on set. She also inadvertently drops her dad Pat (Paddy Considine) in it with the DLA, by revealing her family breeds border collies for a living.
One day Krissi spies an ad for a rock critic in the D&ME music paper and encourages Jo to apply. Well, the girl can write but she doesn’t exactly have the music know-how, so submits a review of the Annie soundtrack. While this amuses the staff lads at D&ME who call to offer her an interview, when she arrives they tell her they’d assumed it was all a joke. Crushed and ready to throw in the towel, Jo finds herself on the receiving end of a good talking to from a familiar looking Icelandic pixie. In her vibrant imagination, anyway.
Spurred on by the pep talk, she lands a temporary staff job and is sent off to review a Manic Street Preachers gig. It’s here that her alter-ego Dolly Wilde the sex pirate is born – where her love and understanding of the power of music begins – and where it all starts to go right and then very wrong in her world. Dolly, for the record, is a pantomime character, a swash-buckling red-headed, fishnet-wearing Victorian ingenue with a new found lust for the world.
When she’s sent to Dublin to interview musician John Kite (Alfie Allen), she falls instantly in love and they spend a delightful (and non-sexual) day and night together. When she files her finished piece on Kite, it’s dismissed by her D&ME boss as the stylings of a love sick teenager – which at sixteen and besotted – is exactly what she is. But she learns her lesson and vows to be more acerbic with her words.
The new bitchy Dolly Wilde proves popular in showbiz circles with her cruel reviews and as her star ascends, her relationships in the real world begin to plummet. Krissi feels left behind and sick of hearing the salacious details of Dolly’s sexual exploits, while dad is dismayed that his daughter can’t get his music out there. Meanwhile, her schooling begins to suffer. While she’s super popular now, those closest to her just ain’t sure anymore.
On the night Dolly wins the Arsehole of the Year award at a music industry event, she professes her love to John Kite, who rejects her as kindly as he can. Lashing out, she writes a new article about him, revealing all sorts of intimate secrets he’d told her off record that night in Dublin. She also starts shagging her colleague, quits school and gives her family what for, hurting them all horribly.
Well, what goes up must surely come down and Dolly is about to learn some valuable life lessons. Can she find her way again and mend bridges with her loved ones – and John Kite?
“So, what do you do when you’ve built yourself, only to realize you’ve built yourself with the wrong things? You rip it up and start again. Build it up and tear it down. Endlessly, repetitively, unceasingly. Invent, invent, invent. What will eventually be you? One day, you’ll marvel over what you did. Marvel over how you tried to keep the loud, drunken, laughing, cutting, panicking, unbearably present secret of yourself – when really you were just about as secret as the moon. And as luminous under all those clothes. And how, like all the best quests, you did it all for a girl. You.” ~ Johanna Morrigan
It’s not that I don’t like this movie, I’m just not sure it would be as good without the luminous Beanie. I think I’m biased because I love her performance (even if her accent is a little wonky at times) and I enjoy her chemistry with Alfie Allen. I really enjoyed this coming of age story when I first read the novel but that was back when I was a Moran Stan and didn’t know as much about the world.
Viewing the adaptation critically, well, I still enjoyed myself. It’s a fun romp and even if I have to hold onto the coat tails of a fictional teenager to get my kicks, consider me in. Caitlin Moran still irritates me but Beanie made me like Johanna Corrigan again so I bought the sequel, How to be Famous, which I’m reading now.
I would have liked a little more from the rest of the Morrigans. Both Pat and Jo’s mother, Angie (Sarah Solemani) are great – and the family elements of the novel were part of what I really liked about it – so it would have been interesting to explore that dynamic a bit more. But that’s a minor niggle really.
UPDATE: I totally recommend you read Jill’s comments re: the male gaze/the handling of self-harm in her review. She goes much deeper than I do.