'How to Build a Girl': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
Nostalgic heaven for Gen X rock chicks of all ages.

Beanie Feldstein incarnates a teen cutting a swathe through Britain's 1990s music journalism scene in this adaptation of Caitlin Moran's semi-autobiographical book.

As fun as a night in the mosh pit with your best mate, How to Build a Girl casts up-and-coming It girl Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird, Booksmart) as a brainy, bawdy and irrepressibly rebellious working-class teen prodigy coming of age in Wolverhampton, U.K., in the early 1990s.

Living out a lightly fictionalized version of journalist-turned-novelist-turned-screenwriter Caitlin Moran's own story (she wrote both the original book and screenplay), Feldstein's Johanna harnesses her hyper-fecund literary talent to infiltrate an all-boys enclave and become a nationally known music critic at the tender age of 16. Directed by Coky Giedroyc with a fizzy vibrancy and supercharged by Feldstein's intense charisma, this crowd-pleasing comedy has smart things to say about class, sex and female identity. In the U.K., where Moran is a best-selling celebrity, Girl is likely to send audiences into a frenzy of pleasure. Abroad, the sell may be a bit trickier but the potential is definitely there, especially given the audiences' reinvigorated receptivity to female-centric stories.

Harking back to halcyon days when getting paid to write snarky reviews was actually glamorous, and the music scene was a lot seedier, sexier, less digitized and fragmented, Girl taps into a relatively little explored nostalgie de la boue for the last decade of the 20th century. Set around 1992-93 or thereabouts, the film honors a time when Britannia was just becoming cool and smoking still was, £10 could buy a whole new image via smart shopping in secondhand stores, and it was possible to feed a family of seven on state benefits, as long as you had a side hustle like breeding border collies.

The latter is indeed the black market occupation of Pat Morrigan (Paddy Considine, bringing a touch of the troubled paterfamilias he played in the stage production of The Ferryman, as well as an already established talent for drumming), who along with his depressed wife Angie (Sarah Solemani) presides over a tribe of five kids. The two eldest, still-in-the-closet-but-only-just boy Krissi (smartly played by Laurie Kynaston) and his sister Johanna (Feldstein), share a room with a makeshift divider in the family's poky state-owned house.

But Johanna — our irrepressible heroine, whose stream-of-sass voiceover barely pauses for breath throughout and yet is somehow the only way the story could be told given how integral Moran/Johanna's voice is to the story — has big dreams. Most of them wet ones, but also quite a few about literary ambition as well. Inspired by her wall collage of personal heroes, who in her imagination come to life and give her advice — creating cute cameos for the likes of Michael Sheen (Freud), Great British Bake-Off stars Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc (the Bronte sisters) and Lucy Punch (Sylvia Plath) — Johanna manages to muster the moxie to believe her voice is worth hearing. A prize-winning poem about her dog sent to a local TV show (hosted by Chris O'Dowd) reaps unexpected mixed success, encouraging her to pursue her craft and apply to write for D&ME, a fictional avatar of NME, at that point the leader among several newsprint publications covering pop and rock music at the time (nearly all of which are now extinct).

By dint of having everyone talk very fast, and sparing little expense on sets, supporting actors, costumes and props that only last a scene or two, Moran's script, Giedroyc's manic direction and the production manage to condense a lot of incident into 102 minutes that seem to be over in a flash. In the space of that running time, Johanna relaunches herself as libertine lady of letters Dolly Wilde; becomes a new girly-bitchy voice of her generation to the chagrin of her secretly sexist male colleagues; and falls in love with soulful, damaged pop star John Kite (Alfie Allen, showing off a surprisingly expressive singing voice with songs written by Brit band Elbow).

Having proven her musical abilities in the recent revival of Hello, Dolly! and acting skills elsewhere, it's not really a shock that Feldstein manages to pretty much nail the distinctive Wolverhampton accent. Mind you, she gets a lot of practice because there's hardly a minute where Johanna isn't talking, throwing off quips and bon mots like a sparkler on Guy Fawkes night. The lines are all Moran's but the sexy gutsiness, the twinkly peepers with their Cleopatra eyeliner and the naughty laugh are Feldstein's to own. She's an instant icon of body positivity, fat-girl fleshy and proud of it, beaming with joy even after she's just lost a bloody sanitary pad out of her knickers in the middle of gym class. Like the book and Moran's writings elsewhere, the film gleefully gets raunchy and real about the female body and mind. As the title suggests, it's all about exploring how one girl constructs herself piece by piece, and it's a joyful thing to behold.

One shudders to think how much money producers Alison Owen (Saving Mr Banks, Jane Eyre) and Debra Hayward (Les Miserables, Bridget Jones's Diary) must have needed to hustle up in collaboration with music supervisor Nick Angel to pay for the film's ace soundtrack of Britpop and '90s bangers — a suitably eclectic collection that encompasses Salt-N-Pepa's "Push It," the Manic Street Preachers' "You Love Us" and Bikini Kill's "Rebel Girl," among other treats.

Production companies: A Film4, Tango Entertainment presentation of a Monumental Pictures production
Cast: Beanie Feldstein, Alfie Allen, Paddy Considine, Sarah Solemani, Laurie Kynaston, Joanna Scanlan, Sue Perkins, Mel Giedroyc, Chris O'Dowd, Emma Thompson, Michael Sheen, Lily Allen, Alexei Sayle, Gemma Arterton, Jameela Jamil, Lucy Punch, Sharon Horgan, Andi Oliver
Director: Coky Giedroyc
Screenwriter: Caitlin Moran, based on her novel
Producers: Alison Owen, Debra Hayward
Executive producers: Daniel Battsek, Ollie Madden, Sue Bruce-Smith, Tim Headington, Lia Buman, Zygi Kamasa, Emma Berkofsky
Director of photography: Hubert Taczanowski
Production designer: Amanda McArthur
Costume designer: Stephanie Collie
Editor: Gary Dollner, Gareth C. Scales
Music: Oli Julian
Music supervisor: Nick Angel
Casting: Shaheen Baig
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Sales: Protagonist Pictures

102 minutes