As it’s difficult to predict how 2021 will unfold (except that it will likely be challenging), it feels especially critical (or at least achievable) to determine how we’ll start off the new year here on the Blog Collab. Gritty drama? Experimental arthouse? Dark horror? Even shark films don’t feel appropriate right now, so we’re diving into waters we’ve really only dipped a toe into before: uplifting, feel-good pieces. We’re aiming for films as predictable as TV Christmas movies and as cozy as a weighted blanket.
Can we handle this long term–or at least for a month? We’ll ease into things this week with a coming of age comedy based on a Caitlin Moran novel (not that Moran herself is getting an open-ended seal of approval for all things). With our fave Beanie Feldstein starring, can our pick possibly be less than charming?
How to Build a Girl
An awkward teen lands a job as a music critic for a trendy magazine, navigating the differences between career success and personal fulfillment.
Johanna Morrigan, a teen growing up on a council estate in 1990s Wolverhampton, dreams of having the type of dramatic transformation and brilliant adventures of her heroes–figures like the Brontë sisters, Sigmund Freud, Cleopatra, Sylvia Plath, and Karl Marx. The trouble is, she’s exactly the kind of awkward straight-A student whose successes merely provide fodder for local bullies; in other words, she is unwittingly the vision of a 1990s heroine.
Though her family is full of too many siblings, a depressed mother, and a father still operating under the belief that he can make it as a pop star, Johanna’s best friend is her brother, Krissi, who is a gay Marxist armed with much cooler musical taste than anyone else around. One evening, preparing for the family viewing of Top of the Pops, Johanna’s life is set to change when her poem lands her a spot on a Midlands news program–though not in the ways she expects. An aspiring writer, her…er, quirky(?) performance on the show makes her even more of a target of ridicule, sending her to a decided low point.
Luckily, Krissi is endlessly encouraging, urging Johanna to enter a competition to write for trendy music mag D&ME. Decidedly out of the loop on cool new music, Johanna opts to write with a sense of fun about “The Sun Will Come out Tomorrow,” which earns her a surprise interview in London. However, all of the pre-hipster ironic assholes at the magazine think Johanna’s entry was a joke, and they send her packing back home with only a free t-shirt to show for it. Unwilling to accept this, Johanna reminds the writers that the piece was strong, and she can learn all the rest about music trends on the job.
As luck would have it, one of the writers is less than enthusiastic about reviewing a gig in Birmingham, so Johanna goes along instead. Or, rather, Johanna’s alter ego Dolly Wilde arrives. After the publication of her article, Johanna is an overnight sensation (at least locally) with access to unreleased singles, swag, and the power to make or break a musical act. She may even finally help her dad’s music career take off, though he’s done himself no favors by calling his band Mayonnaise.
Inspired by her own success, Johanna plucks up the courage to ask for an interview assignment, landing a chance to chat with rising star John Kite. An earnest lover of music and pensive reflection among narcissists and posers, Johanna winds up totally smitten with Kite…and it shows in her work. D&ME refuses to publish her fangirl piece. In order to be taken seriously again, a fellow writer gives Johanna advice she takes to heart: unleash your inner bitch.
As it turns out, this has been the key to music criticism all along. Not only is Johanna earning more money than ever before, but she’s also enjoying power at last, as her word becomes gold. But, as always, there’s a price with all of this, and that price is being an insufferable little punk. As the family depends more and more on the work of Dolly Wilde, Johanna delights in rubbing their noses in her success. She talks back to teachers, leaves school, smokes and drinks to excess, and boasts about her sexual exploits to her brother (though has no time to hear about his romantic progress).
It all reaches a tipping point when Johanna wins Arsehole of the Year at a music industry awards night but is rejected by John Kite when she confesses her feelings to him. In a race to rock-bottom, Johanna strikes back at Kite by publishing a nasty article about him, then proceeds to alienate everyone remotely still on her side. Is it too late for Johanna to make amends with all of those she has wronged?
3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads
Look, there are no surprises here. This is a coming of age story tinged with sweetness and positivity, so it’s rather predictable. That being said, I enjoyed the film and its message in favor of awkward enthusiasm over aloof coolness. Beanie Feldstein hits all of the right notes here, even if there are times when her accent is a little inconsistent.
Throughout the film, there are a lot of elements that are fun but could have been pushed further to make things more interesting. First, Johanna is the only character who really gets any sort of development at all. I really liked the dynamic between her character and Krissi’s, but he ends up being quite one-dimensional. And it’s disappointing how often Johanna fails to be there for her brother, whose experiences as a gay teen on a 1990s council estate can’t have been easy…though this plot point is glossed over.
Additionally, the concept of Johanna seeking advice from her historical and fictional idols has potential, but it doesn’t happen frequently enough to feel necessary. All we get is a selection of celebrity cameos–none of which I’m mad about, but which do nothing particularly interesting for the story. They merely underscore the extent to which we’re meant to believe that this film and its protagonist are extremely quirky.
This leads me to my final issue with the film: the handling of Johanna’s self-harm scene and its aftermath. The film’s tone in these scenes is truly bizarre, and the writing is so loose that I’m not sure if it’s being played for laughs or just poorly developed. Either way, it isn’t well done and seems remarkably casual.
What I do appreciate about the film (and the novel) is its ability to negotiate the nuances of feminism (even if its real-life writer doesn’t always do this particularly well). Johanna is funny and fierce as she navigates the very male-oriented world of music criticism at a young age. To her credit, she begins to piece things together, realizing that being a trailblazing woman amongst men isn’t enough to make her actions feminist; she says and does a lot of problematic things for the benefit of her own career (and the male gaze). It’s not automatically a feminist quality to be outspoken, especially if your words are viciously attacking others simply because you can.