British writer Caitlin Moran has mined her family background for multiple projects, and she returns to that well again for How to Build a Girl, the film adaptation of her 2014 semi-autobiographical novel. Inspired both by Moran’s chaotic upbringing and by her brief stint in the ’90s as a teenage music journalist for Melody Maker, How to Build a Girl plays a bit like a British female version of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, albeit more streamlined and sometimes more simplistic. But it’s also distinctly Moran’s vision, with a clear kinship to Moran’s 2013-2016 sitcom Raised by Wolves.
Both take place largely in the working-class town of Wolverhampton, where Moran grew up as one of eight children. Here, her avatar is named Johanna Morrigan (Booksmart’s Beanie Feldstein), and she only has four siblings, all brothers. Johanna is an awkward loser who spends her free time talking to imaginary versions of the cultural heroes, both real and fictional, whose pictures adorn her wall. She wants to escape her dead-end hometown and emulate her idols, from the Brontë sisters to Little Women protagonist Jo March, and she first gets her chance when she wins a poetry contest run by a local TV talk show.
After humiliating herself on TV with her fumbling and mumbling, Johanna is mortified but undaunted, entering another contest to win a chance to write for fictional music publication D&ME. The hipster music writers don’t respect Johanna any more than her classmates do, even though they acknowledge that she’s a talented writer, so she reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde, a free-spirited libertine with bright red hair and a penchant for wearing top hats. As Dolly, Johanna lives a sort of double life, spending her nights at trendy clubs, hanging backstage with rock stars, and then returning home to Wolverhampton to trudge through another day at school and use her D&ME checks to help with the family’s finances.
As her star rises, Johanna gets carried away with her own fame, and her character arc is both predictable and overly tidy, as she turns into a jerk (literally winning an award for “asshole of the year” at one point) and then realizes the error of her ways. Although there are some cheesy believe-in-yourself speeches, there’s also plenty of Moran’s trademark cheeky, raunchy humor, and Johanna is unapologetically sexual, taking advantage of her newfound celebrity to go on a giddy journey of sexual discovery.
Even when she’s behaving like a selfish monster, Johanna still has sweet relationships with her family members, including her gay brother and main confidant Krissi (Laurie Kynaston), her has-been musician father (Paddy Considine) and her stressed-out mother (Sarah Solemani), constantly exhausted by caring for her newborn “surprise twins.” The movie’s central relationship, though, is between Johanna and singer-songwriter John Kite (Game of Thrones’ Alfie Allen), the subject of her very first interview. Johanna falls immediately in love with the soulful troubadour, but he sees himself as more of a mentor, and the evolution of their dynamic parallels Johanna’s journey to relative maturity.
That journey is not always entirely convincing, but the movie is entertaining and funny throughout, and Feldstein is appealing as Johanna even when she’s acting inconsiderate and mean. Director Coky Giedroyc, a veteran of British and American TV, captures the early ’90s period setting perfectly, mixing fictional musicians like John Kite with real-life acts like the Manic Street Preachers. There’s real warmth and melancholy in Johanna’s relationship with her father, who sees his daughter’s success as a chance at the musical career he never had. As a coming-of-age story, How to Build a Girl doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s a clever and accessible gateway to Moran’s brand of brash feminist humor.