It seems to me that there is a bit of a trend with British films about British women where the lead, and only the lead, is played by an American. I guess Richard Curtis started it by shoehorning Andie MacDowell into Four Weddings so that the film might appeal better to the US market (at least it was a key part of the story in Notting Hill) and movies that we’ve since forgotten, like Jack & Sarah and Curtis’ own About Time, followed suit. Alongside this they seemed to realise that having lots of stories about American women living in the UK seemed a little forced so they just cast Hollywood stars as English women instead. So we got Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors, Anne Hathaway in One Day, Maggie Gyllenhaal in Nanny McPhee & the Big Bang and of course Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones.
I don’t know, maybe it’s not a thing. It does go both ways with decidedly American characters like Batman, Spider-Man and Superman all being portrayed by British guys and these cross Atlantic swaps are as old as cinema but it still seems a little odd having LA’s own Beanie Feldstein play a teenager from Wolverhampton here, in Caitlin Moran’s adaptation of her semi-autobiographical novel. Maisie Williams would have done as good a job, as would Lucy Boynton, Jessica Barden or Yasmin Paige.
To be fair Feldstein is good in the role and she manages the accent well, just as was the case with Paltrow et al before her. (I liked Anne Hathaway in One Day, although I know she has come under some criticism for her Yorkshire burr.) Beanie Feldstein has previously shone in Booksmart (where she was just superb) and Ladybird (where evenhandedness dictates that I point out that Dubliner Saoirse Ronan played a Sacramento high schooler) and this will certainly contribute to her ascent.
I’m not overly familiar with the source material for this but I have read Moran’s How To Be a Woman which evidentially focuses on similar elements of her life. That book mixed stories of Moran’s own upbringing with brilliant truths about the female experience and felt like an important feminist text. I had assumed that some of this would also inform this movie but despite the title I didn’t think it really says much about most young women’s formative years. There is a speech at the end about girls controlling their own narrative but this is not a theme that runs throughout. In the past cinema has given me clear guidance on how to train my dragon, how to be single, how I can both lose a guy in ten days and lose friends and alienate people and even what I should do if I want to stop worrying and love the bomb, but this I thought was generally less instructive. It doesn’t give any particular advice on how young woman can empower themselves and I had thought and hoped it might.
The story just doesn’t feel very relatable with protagonist Johanna becoming an influential teenage music journalist. Despite Moran’s own experiences in this field, this is not something most youngsters have to navigate and the ensuing misadventures feel quite specific. The film is essentially a British gender flipped Almost Famous and while the way the industry gobbles her up and changes her gives it a hint of The Devil Wears Prada as well, it isn’t the examination of representations or treatment of women that it seemed to promise. It isn’t joining Made in Dagenham, Wild, Hidden Figures and Colette on the list of movies I’d like my daughters to see. Johanna is compromised for sure but actually she seems a little too happy and ready to become an arsehole of such proportions that she literally wins prizes for it and redemption arc or not, I’m not sure she is a great role model. She is also very sex positive which I have no problem with at all but she is sixteen and surrounded by older men in a male dominated industry so there might be a real issues of abuse of power here that problematically no one is addressing. I acknowledge that I am not the target audience here so I may well have missed something but my experience of Moran’s writing is that it has essential messages for everyone, irrespective of age or gender, and if that was ever here I think it has got lost.
Around all of this How to Build a Girl is still an entertaining film. The scenes of her home life are also quite sweet with Paddy Considine, Sara Solemani and Laurie Kynaston giving very different but equally strong performances as her parents and brother. There is also a nice conceit with famous characters speaking to her from posters where a range of people from Lily Allen to Mel & Sue get to play a range of people from Elizabeth Taylor to the Bronté sisters (Björk is in this mix too but they clearly couldn’t identify her as such because as a living person she needs to provide permission for this).
How to Build a Girl does not demonstrate how to build a must see movie then but it does fine on how to pass the time.
How to Build a Girl is on Amazon Prime.