dir: Coky Giedroyc
How to Build a Girl is another entry into the one woman industry that is Caitlin Moran. We previously had a fictionalised foray into her teenage years in the brilliant but short lived series Raised by Wolves, but here we get another go at seeing some of the formative years of a clever and somehow optimistic young writer who gets seduced by the dark side of music criticism.
Moran’s big success book-wise was the publication of How to Build a Woman, which was part memoir, part collection of various columns she’d written over the years ranging from her experiences as a teen writer for weekly music newspaper Melody Maker, her experiences growing up and her family life, and broader issues she’s faced in life and that women face in general. It was a tremendous book, funny, trenchant and illuminating, and fiercely feminist. Specifically, there’s a chapter in the book dedicated to convincing people to reclaim the term, which a lot of people, including women, tend to shy away from because of the negative connotations the media has appended to it, essentially accepting the distorted interpretation of their enemies of its meaning and purpose.
For me, as an added element, the thing is, the era in which she was writing at Melody Maker, and the era in which Melody Maker and NME, or the New Musical Express were the two titans that dominated British music press in the late 80s early 90s, is not just an era I’m informed about through media as an interesting time, kinda like how watching Almost Famous about a teenage boy writing for Rolling Stone in the early 70s represented Cameron Crowe’s experiences. I wasn’t there. It didn’t speak to me on that level.
No, the big difference for me is that I used to obsessively buy both Melody Maker and NME in that era, despite the fact that I definitely didn’t live in Britain at any stage of my life back then, and, looking at the place now, not for the foreseeable future.
Being a weekly newspaper, and one from far away, by the time I got to buy and read it from the local newsagent, it was already a month or two old, but it hardly mattered. At first I was reading about bands I’d never hear of again that would never release more than an EP or two before finishing their A Levels and going off and doing their professional thing far away from the music industry. Then it was about bands that were always going to be the next Big Thing, and occasionally they’d even be on the pre-internet independent radio.
The glorious thing about Melody Maker and NME back then is that they were simultaneously too vicious and too adulatory at the same time. One week they would be telling you that Suede were the greatest most original band of all time, the next they would be mocking Brett Anderson’s excessive bum shaking or idiotic comments he made in one of the rival papers or magazines.
The writing was often pungent, hysterical, offensive and never timid, but also sometimes fawning and ejaculatory. It combined all of the best (literary, historically aware, pre-woke wokeness, LGBTQI+ allied before it was cool) elements of post-Thatcherite Britain with its worst / coarsest Benny Hill / Viz Comics / tabloid gutter sensibilities. They praised the worst excesses of popular bands, and chided them for setting such an appalling example for the youth, even when they (the journos) were the ones getting pissed or doing lines with the bands.
Then there was the infamous time where these papers were accused of having a toxic build ‘em up to knock ‘em down mentality, and instead of shying away from it, denying it or actively working against it, the NME stage at Glastonbury one year proudly bore that phrase as its war cry on its banner.
And, still, it was all meant to be about the love of music, which really seemed important and life affirming at the time. She (Caitlin) was part of it at that very time When it Was All Happening. And, as this film shows, she was just as much a part of the highs as the lows of the industry as anyone else, even if it’s exaggerated for comedic effect.
I think, considering that How to Build a Girl (the book) is technically fiction, even if it mines her own life for almost all of its material, the best way to look at the film is as a fictionalised rendering of a familiar (to her readers) story updated and put into a format that wouldn’t stray too much from the Bridget Jones’s Diary format of rom com storytelling. It might sound like I’m insulting either Caitlin Moran, her book, or the movie, but that’s not how I intend it at all. I actually really enjoyed Bridget Jones’s Diary (the first one) despite its flaws and mixed messages, and the fact they turned it into a trilogy / franchise.
From a screenplay point of view, they share some similarities, but not enough that it’s a shameless rip-off. Of course, the fact that How to Build a Girl is part of trilogy doesn’t help that much…
Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein) lives in a council estate in Wolverhampton with her family. She is in school, but, in the one class with the one teacher that we get to see, she is too exuberant, filled with too much ambition and enthusiasm to take school seriously or even sitting down. A teacher tries to encourage her not to do more, but to do less.
Her father (the great Paddy Considine) is a failed jazz musician who still hopes his time is coming. Her mum (Sarah Solemani) is drowning in babies, and doesn’t have the time or energy to listen to every one of her thoughts or feelings. She calls the family border collie Bianca her best and only friend, though in the person of her brother Krissi (Laurie Kynaston) she has at least one human ally. She almost wins a poetry competition, and randomly decides to enter a competition at the D&ME weekly newspaper by reviewing a recording of Annie the Musical.
They think she was taking the piss, but she somehow, after getting a pep talk from a Bjork-like Snow Pixie in a poster (Patsy Ferran), parlays the opportunity into a potential job. One of the alleged journos (all of Johanna’s co-workers are represented as complete snobbish wankers and vicious hacks) can’t be fucked going to Birmingham to review an early gig by the then unknown Manic Street Preachers, so she gets to go, after transforming herself into a new version of herself, complete with a top hat and new name: Dolly Wilde!
So, maybe it’s awfully cheesy, but it’s okay. I guess. As a name for a persona? Um… At the gig she finds the passion (through the music) and the connection (through the energy of the crowd) that she has craved all her life, and falls into the lifestyle of going to gigs and writing about it for the paper. The mistake she makes, like the mistake many journalists fall into, is that she comes to care about a particular musician, being John Kite (Alfie Allen, for once playing a nice guy, and not a castrated traitor or killer of people’s dogs), who’s older and wiser, though not wise enough not to confide in someone who doesn’t have his best interests at heart. He’s a popular singer, more of a crooner, so I’m guessing he’s meant to be like a Jeff Buckley kind of young guy, who hopefully avoids a similar fate down the track.
She writes an interview of such crushing fangirlishness that not only isn’t the feature printed, the jerks at the office fire her. Then, when she gets to see what it’s like to go to gigs when your name isn’t on the door and you don’t get to go back stage with the bands after the gig and drink from their rider / snort from their mirror, she gets her job back only when she accepts the mantra that is the workplace’s credo – their job is to destroy almost all bands, in order to let the few good ones prosper. So her job is to write reviews and articles of such incredible callousness and cruelty that, if the subjects decide never to make music again or kill themselves, it’s a job well done.
Like every flick, this has a montage sequence, but the montage here is of Johanna / Dolly embracing the ethos and writing thousands of words ripping to shreds almost every aspect of every chancer, poseur and young turk who comes along, who has the audacity to put out any song or single. There is no selectiveness, no scalpel use, no finesse other than in the intricate and vicious turns of phrase: It’s indiscriminate carpet bombing, destroying everything and everyone on the battlefield indiscriminately.
At the same time, she boozing, she’s powdering her nose, she’s partying with the cool kids, she’s shagging her way across the sceptered isle, she’s earning serious bank in a household where she’s the only earner, and she’s still only 16. She’s never been happier, never been more alive, never been more sure of her ambitions and her future.
It’s almost too obvious where this is going, because even though we use the phrase “meteoric rise” to describe one’s ascent to the upper echelons of a given profession or society, really, since when do meteor’s rise? They do naught but fall from the perspective of those of us on the ground, they fall and fall hard. Her fellow journos at D&ME see her as a barely educated sub-human yob from the lowest scum of the worst part of England; the industry awards her the Biggest Arsehole award at some event, and she now feels like she can hurl abuse at her family at will because she’s earning some scratch, and is therefore better than them.
Of course it all comes falling apart, but the question for us, as viewers, many of whom might not have much of a grounding in what is a pretty narrow set of experiences experienced by a bunch of people in the 1990s: how entertaining is it to watch this story? With these actors?
Well, for me, it was enjoyable. I have to admit that when I heard that Beanie Feldstein was going to play the lead, I was a bit confused, because I wondered how she could be the only appropriate person in all of the Commonwealth to play this character. I’m not in a position to judge how well she does with the accent, because, honestly, what the fuck do I know about what accents in the Midlands sound like? About the only thing I have to judge is remembering the way they spoke in Raised By Wolves, and that sounds like a hard accent to replicate. I think she does pretty well. To people from around there, she might sound like Madonna saying “But Oim telling you, Oim English I am!” But to me, because I guess I was doing a fair bit of willing suspension of disbelief, it wasn’t as much of a sticking point as I dreaded.
And the story is one I can enjoy, even if I can’t relate to the bits about the horrid workplace, or drug use, or shagging popstars, but I can certainly recall what it was like to feel caught up in that era through the music, the gigs and the papers, which amplified and reflected back a lot of the best and worst of the era. She, being the character and the actor, maintains, for most of it, such a joyous enthusiasm, such a lack of malice in her enthusiastic maliciousness, that I couldn’t help but love her. And she gives a speech to camera at the end, after a sequence of terrible mistakes, after trying to make amends, clumsily, that I can’t imagine a lot of other actors would have been able to do in such a positive, convincing and self-accepting manner. She’s a wonder, and I think she does great in this, like she does in almost everything I’ve seen her in.
Caitlin Moran’s work and her life has had many aspects, triumphs, failures and successes, but the explicit theme of How to Build a Girl, as eloquently put in that speech to camera, is that the person best placed to build the “girl” that a girl is becoming, is the girl herself, because society, the media, toxic relationships, awful workplaces and general misogyny will construct them otherwise in broken ways which benefit them, and not the girl herself.
She’s saying this as the woman who lived this life or one very much like it, who made mistakes and learned from them, who wishes to instill this perspective in her two daughters, and presumably in all our daughters, so that they can break themselves out of the spirals of shame, abuse, self-harm and self-hatred that so many fall prey to, and find the lives they can live joyfully doing whatever they aspire to do.
Maybe it’s going to provoke eye-rolls from others, but a message like that still resonates with me, even if there’s no way my daughter’s old enough to watch a flick like this (there are some enthusiastic sex scenes, and Johanna unembarrassedly talking about her sexploits with her deeply embarrassed brother), I like to hope that one day in the future she could watch a flick like this and get the positive messages within it, even if she has no interest in stuff that happened in the previous century.
How To Build A Girl? Give her the time, space and support to build herself well, tear other bits down and rebuild them, that’s what I think they’re saying, and I wholeheartedly agree. It would be churlish to do otherwise.
8 times what’s not to admire about hyper-verbal, hyper-literate female characters out of 10
“I shall feast upon my misery. And jam.” – the standard diet of all tortured writers – How to Build a Girl