My first ever viewing of Almost Famous in my parents’ basement as a teen sparked a rich tapestry of fantasies involving me running off to become a groupie. In this scenario, The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards would magically return to his 1972 looks circa 2005, and I would be transformed into a muse with perfect curls and a white shearling jacket that would never get dirty, inspiring the most elusive musicians to lustful creativity. Which is to say, I was not dramatic at all.
How To Build A Girl, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday, feels like an extension of my own teenage dreams. Directed by Coky Giedroyc, and based on the best-selling 2014 semi-autobiographical novel by Caitlin Moran (who also wrote the script), the movie is a loving tribute to young women with overactive imaginations, and a desire to reinvent themselves.
Beanie Feldstein plays Johanna Morrighan, a 16-year-old buried in the dreary Midlands suburb of Wolverhampton in England. Her father (Paddy Considine), is a failed jazz drummer still trying to reclaim his 1978 glory days, and her mother (Sarah Solemani) is struggling with postpartum depression after the unplanned birth of twins. Johanna’s only real friend is her brother Krissy (Laurie Kynaston, a treat in this), with whom she shares a partitioned bedroom. And what a bedroom! One of the highlights of the movie is Celia De La Hey’s set decoration, which features a wall filled with pictures of Johanna’s idols, who dole out advice, wanted and… not. Sigmund Freud, Jo March, the Bronte Sisters, Elizabeth Taylor, Cleopatra — each peering out of the edge of their frames a la Hogwarts paintings in Harry Potter, central characters of Johanna’s active imagination.
When a disastrous television appearance on Midlands Today’s young poet competition causes the government to cut short the benefits received by her father (to be fair, he was breeding border collies illegally), Johanna is desperate to find a way to help make ends meet. To that end, she responds to an ad in the newspaper seeking a junior writer for music magazine D&ME in London. Her submission? An enthusiastic and superlative review of Annie: The Musical.
Unsurprisingly, she’s initially met with surprise and contempt by the oh-so-cool staff. Her first ever profile of the croony romantic John Kite (Game of Thrones' Alfie Allen) — with whom she spends a magical evening in Dublin, so completely disarmed is he by her guileless exuberance — is a hilariously moony love letter. But in an effort to prove she’s not just a nice teen girl, she soon becomes one of the guys, shedding Johanna’s awkward skin to become the witty, sharp-tongued and glamorous Dolly Wilde, a woman of the world who greets her fans in a top hat perched at a jaunty angle on her fire-red mane. As Dolly takes over, she starts to threaten the best things about Johanna, who must figure out if this is really who she wants to be, or if she has to start rebuilding herself all over again.
Feldstein is as charming as ever, delivering her lines with the earnestness and flourish of an extremely theatrical teenage girl. Her British accent, on the other hand, is so-so — the trademark inflections we’ve come to love through Lady Bird and Booksmart still creep through. Still, it’s delicious to see her embody a character that’s not only in control of her own sexuality, but truly revels in telling everyone about her exploits. In one scene, she’s strutting down the street in a white leather bustier and matching skirt, a huge white hat teetering on top of a burlesque bouffant, a woman awash in complete and utter confidence that she looks hot. And you know what? She is. Her sartorial choices are insane, and she does the absolute most at all times, but she’s such a force of nature that it works. It’s refreshing how much she looks and acts her age throughout. The fishnets, the hair, the thick black eyeliner all jump out as what a teenage girl thinks a chic, distinctive adult looks like. She’s everything I wished I could be at that age, but was too afraid and self-conscious to try.
Fans of the book may be put off by how much more tame the film is compared to the original source material. How To Build A Girl was rife with intimate descriptions of masturbation, and graphic sexual encounters with drunk older men — a messy, unvarnished journey of sexual self-discovery. The movie tones that down quite a bit. There is a scene of Johanna discreetly masturbating at her desk, and some truly hilarious descriptions of how one can crawl away from a large penis during doggy style sex, but it all feels much more mainstream. And perhaps that's the point: to appeal to a larger, more shock-averse audience. But something does feel lost in the process.
What makes How To Build A Girl so gutting, however, is that underneath its bombastic and fun trappings, there’s a searing emotional core. Giedroyc’s juxtaposition of Johanna’s wild, unadulterated dreams against her mother’s defeated, exhausted existence reminds us that too often, smart, happy girls are beaten down into submission by society and circumstance. We have to nurture this side of ourselves. It's precious, and so easily lost in the mundane. You can rebuild yourself as many times as you want, this movie says. Just don’t let anyone else tear you down. In the words of Miss Penny Lane, “It’s all happening.”