How To Build A Girl (2020) ★★1/2
Director: Coky Giedroyc
Writer: Caitlin Moran (based on Moran’s novel)
I know many people believe it’s always best to read the book before the movie, but I’m on the fence. Very often, the book outshines the movie by a long shot — especially if you read the book shortly before seeing the movie, as I did with How To Build A Girl, which is based on Caitlin Moran’s 2014 novel by the same title. I loved the book, loved its early 1990s setting and its teenage heroine, Johanna Morrigan, a working-class girl who is obsessed with sex and books and writing. She’s a girl so sure of her literary talent that she auditions to be a rock critic without knowing a thing about rock music. She gets CDs from the library to catch up and invents a rock critic persona, “Dolly Wilde.” Soon, she has a full-time magazine job, and is going to concerts, meeting rock stars and having lots of sex. It’s very, very fun reading. And then at the end, you cry!
So, look: the movie had a lot to live up to . . . And it just didn’t, even with a screenplay penned by Moran herself. It could be that I am just too enamored of the novel to be a proper critic of the movie, but my husband, who hasn’t read the book, agreed that it was lackluster. He also was a bit confused, especially at the beginning, when after a few minutes of leisurely voiceover by our heroine, we are plunged into Johanna’s chaotic family, who live crammed together in a council estate in the suburbs of London. Very quickly we meet her two school-aged brothers, twin baby brothers, mother, father, and several border collies. Everyone gathers around the television. Suddenly, it seems that Johanna has won a poetry contest.
“Wait, what?” my husband said.
“There’s more of a build-up in the book,” I explained. “Like, she tries different things and then she hits on this poetry contest and she spends a long time working on the poem . . . but in the meantime, a social worker comes by the check on her mother, who had post-partum depression, but the social worker gets confused and thinks Johanna is the mother because she looks so old for her age. . . oh, never mind, I guess they don’t have time for that . . .”
I understand, of course, that you can’t put everything from a novel into a movie. What you have to do is capture the spirit of the novel. The wonderful thing about Moran’s novel is that all the action is propelled by the sardonic, raunchy, naive, and open-hearted voice of teenage Johanna Morrigan. The movie lacks that sense of delight. There are passages in the book that made me laugh out loud, but even with a very funny and well-cast Beanie Feldstein in the lead, I hardly laughed at all while I was watching the movie. It may be that when you read the book, much of Johanna’s pain is mitigated by her joyous literary voice, but when you actually see her loneliness, especially at home, it feels sad. Director Coky Giedroyc did not always seem aware of the emotional content of the screenplay; there were times when I felt it could have been funnier, and times when it could have been more poignant.
How To Be A Girl was at its best when it attempted to externalize Johanna’s wild fantasy life. I liked the opening, when she imagines a stream of beautiful teenage boys falling in love with her, and a later passage when she falls into a romantic reverie while writing a profile of a rock star. Another clever device, which you can see in the trailer, is Johanna’s animated bulletin board, where all the tacked-up postcards of her literary and film idols can speak to her directly. There are several inspired celebrity cameos in the mix, including Sharon Horgan as Louisa May Alcott and Jameela Jamil as Cleopatra.
I started this movie hoping to feel the joy I got from reading the book, and it never happened. The good news is, there’s a sequel to the book: How To Be Famous, which sounds just as lively as its predecessor.