Right now there perhaps isn’t quite as exciting a new talent in the world of film as Beanie Feldstein, whose energy and smile are as infectious as they are much needed in these strange new times. After her debut in Bad Neighbours 2, she managed the two-hander supreme of Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird – almost stealing the film from Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf – and Olivia Wilde’s magnificent directorial debut Booksmart, which was one of 2019’s very best.
Both were sensational performances but it’s perhaps the latter that is her finest in her short career thus far and one that will be hard to top – but time is on her side and the future looks particularly rosy given she delivers another barnstorming turn in this adaptation of Caitlin Moran’s much-loved novel.
Feldstein plays Johanna Morrigan, an introverted but avuncular 16-year old plowing her way through secondary school in Wolverhampton with ambitions of being a writer. Living on a standard council estate with her family – rock star wannabe Dad Pat (Paddy Considine), mother Angie (Sara Solemani) and brothers Krissi, Lupin and newly born twins – she dreams of the type of writer she would love to be, smothering her bedroom wall with her inspirations: Jo March, Sylvia Plath, the Bronte sisters and more “appear” to her to offer guidance and advice about her aspirations even when her big shot on a live television poetry reading goes array.
However, her brother recommends she write a sample piece to music magazine D&ME and she sends in a review of the Annie soundtrack which doesn’t go down as well as she hoped but determined to find her calling and help her family, she convinces them to let her cover a Manic Street Preachers concert in Birmingham and when it gets a thumbs up, she sees an opportunity to reinvent herself. Johanna is dead, long live Dolly Wilde.
Based closely on Moran’s real life as a teenager, How To Build A Girl the novel had a rawness and surprising honesty to it that made it stand out and with the writer on board the film, it’s delightful to say that the majority of those distinctive features continue through the film. A celebration of creativity, expression, femininity, and the power of making mistakes, the film holds much of the humour and starkness from the book too even if some of said messages get a little lost towards the film’s third act.
It’s always lovely to see that a film adaptation has kept the original author on board but in hindsight perhaps having someone detached from the material may have honed and tightened proceedings slightly better. Giedroyc, though, does a fine job in bringing the words to the screen with some wonderfully inventive moments including the aforementioned “bedroom wall” sequences that bring some of the film’s biggest laughs.
That said, there is much to enjoy here not least in Feldstein’s supremely charming performance at the centre of the film that’s as touching and melancholic as it is effervescent and funny and one that will linger in the memory long after the final credits. Considine, Solemani and Alfie Allen provide solid support while an all-too-brief Emma Thompson cameo is always something to look forward to.