Wednesday 22 July 2020

Under construction: "How to Build a Girl"

Channel 4's rather wonderful, gone-too-soon sitcom Raised by Wolves was Caitlin Moran: The Early Teenage Years. This week's How to Build a Girl, produced by the channel's Film4 arm, rejoins Moran in late adolescence - or, rather, it introduces us to the pseudonymous Johanna Morrigan, a character in her own right, played by Booksmart's Beanie Feldstein as a geeky, speccy, heavyset outsider forever pressing a nose against the window of adult life. Young Mor(rig)an has two stated aims: first to find a suitable swain, a trickier task than one might imagine in the altogether shallow dating pool of her native Wolverhampton; and then to become a world-changing writer, in the image of the literary heroines she's taped to her bedroom wall. The onlooker will by now be aware of Ms. Moran's real-world status - chart-topping author, columnist, reigning queen of UK Meeja Twitter, denmother of rock - and so the second of these is never in too much doubt, but Coky Giedroyc's film takes everyone back to a moment in time when this precocious persona was setting out on that path and suspended between poles: between coursework and a career, the sticks and Soho. On one side Little Women, cited by our heroine-narrator when she compares the repossession of a rental television (ah, the late 1980s) to the death of Beth March. On the other, something geographically and spiritually closer to Loose Women.

The film that results distinguishes itself from the crowded coming-of-age field by virtue of its Wolverhamptonness and its Moranness. Rather than turning its back on any provincialism - as many a British teenpic has, so as to maintain a beady eye on the lucrative export market - How to Build a Girl leans into it. I suspect mild confusion will ensue when the film finally plays in Poughkeepsie, prompted by Feldstein's accent (which stuck even this ear as floating up a few clicks north of Molyneux) and one early reference to Cyrille Regis. The Morrigans' front room appears pokily familiar after Raised by Wolves, albeit now with Paddy Considine - patron saint of the North Midlands - on dream-dad duties as an eternally patient jazz-funk drummer, and Sarah Solemani picking up the short straw of having to follow the formidable Rebekah Staton as Moran mère. (With typical quiet skill, Solemani offers a novel reading of the same role: a woman drained by childbirth, where Staton rarely appeared anything other than emboldened by it. One's an inspiration, the other a cautionary tale; our feminism can be flexible, much as our mothers can be both.) It's inevitably in the bedroom where the film begins to stretch its imaginative muscles, having young Johanna's pin-ups - famous faces, played by famous faces - come to life and dispense time-honoured words of wisdom. It's also where the Moranness becomes most apparent, setting our heroine to masturbating at her typewriter and providing a primer of sex tips: a mid-film crowdpleaser, but also one that comes, as it were, out of nowhere. (Up until then, Johanna has given the impression of an almost Julie Andrews-like chastity.)

It's not the only point in How to Build a Girl where you become aware of a certain erraticness in the adaptation. (You could screen it alongside the BBC's recent Normal People and The Luminaries in a season illustrating the pros and cons of commissioning an author to convert their own bestselling words into pictures: assumed or privileged knowledge remains a pitfall.) As its title suggested, Moran's memoir was meant as a survival guide - a passing-on of the ladyflame, detailing what to cling onto and who to avoid while making the fraught transition from young adult to woman of the world. The movie retains a lot of that useful intel, and is the stronger for it: wide-eyed ingenues will learn how best to handle horrible bosses and contemptuous colleagues, what to do when a rock star invites you back to his suite after a gig, and - more constructively - how to find a critical voice that expresses enthusiasm and scepticism without lapsing into gushing fangirlism or outright nastiness. (There aren't many books that teach you that, and even fewer movies: Moran has successfully dramatised the trial and the error.) One knock-on is that Johanna often feels as if she's on a conveyor belt being filled by with enriching or sobering life experience, like an avatar in an unusually lively public-information broadcast: here she is gaining a break, here she is blowing it, here she gets a new wardrobe (indie-disco dandy, replete with top hat, leggings and ginger hair dye), here's another break.

I've been scratching around on the fringes of the British media long enough to know this is often how things are in reality - I ditched the leggings back in 2007, granted - but it makes for odd ellipses in any filmed narrative, as it would on a CV. Before Johanna lands her first meeting at the "Disc & Music Echo" (geddit) off the back of a one-page critique of the Annie soundtrack, there's not all that much indication of the qualities of her writing - obviously a tricky aspect to dramatise, but one that's surely essential to our understanding of this girl's inner life, her compulsion to strike out on this course, how she landed any such break. Still, given Feldstein's latest tremendously enjoyable performance, it almost doesn't matter: you buy her as not just an embodiment of a recognisably Moranesque spirit, but a big rubber ball of potential energy, destined to bounce all the way close to something like the top. It's an unanticipated, poignant irony that the film of this life should land on UK screens in the same week Q magazine - one of the last, tangible artefacts of the pop-press golden age in which Moran was fortunate enough to make a name for herself - has gone to the wall as a consequence of all things Covid. Yet if you were watching it at an impressionable age (the 15 certificate is ideal), on a council estate, with vague notions of starting a career in journalism of some kind, I could see how you might well find the film inspiring and encouraging in equal measure. Forged in the image of its creative prime mover, How to Build a Girl is broadly a good and cherishable thing.

How to Build a Girl is available to stream via Amazon Prime from Friday.

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