Sunday, May 10, 2020

Beanie Feldstein Learns How to Build a Girl in This "True-ish" Tale from the Music-Rag Trade

John (Alfie Allen) and Johanna (Beanie Feldstein) / IFC
(Coky Giedroyć, UK, 2019, 104 minutes)

"A 10-year-old could be a rock critic."
--Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein)

Johanna Morrigan, the 14-year-old at the center of Caitlin Moran's semi-autobiographical 2014 novel How to Build a Girl is bookish, desperate to lose her virginity, and in her own words, "fat." I appreciate the fact that, despite a large vocabulary, she never uses synonyms for fat, like heavy or big-boned. No, she describes herself as fat, but refreshingly, she doesn't hate herself or her body. Nor does she express any desire to be thin.

In Moran's book and Coky Giedroyć's film, both of which take place in 1990, she wants boys to like her, to have a purpose in life, and to help provide for her council-estate family (Giedroyć, sister of The Great British Baking Show's Mel Giedroyć, is best known for her work on BBC America's The Hour). Considering that Moran's fictionalization of her adventures in the music-rag trade is a thoroughly British affair, the casting of American actress Beanie Feldstein as Johanna is an odd choice, not least because the rest of the cast is British, but after her winning turns as the best friends in Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird and Olivia Wilde's Booksmart, her casting makes sense--even if she's 10 years older than the 16-year-old she plays. And if her accent isn't perfect, it's good enough, which means she's well on her way to joining the Gwyneth Paltrow-Renée Zellweger Club that spawned Shakespeare in Love, Sliding Doors, and several Bridget Jones films.

John isn't sure what to make of the teenage journalist / IFC
Johanna lives with her parents, four brothers, and a border collie--her best friend--in Wolverhampton in the Midlands (the same region where Shane Meadows sets all of his films).

Her mullet'd father, Pat (Paddy Considine, who knows a thing or two about the Midlands), and older brother, Krissy (Laurie Kynaston), are well versed in pop music, whereas she knows very little. Her heroes include authors, artists, actresses, philosophers, and psychoanalysts. Not a pop star among them. In the film, she imagines that their portraits, played by everyone from Michael Sheen (Freud) to Elizabeth Taylor (Lily Allen), can speak to her.

When Johanna wins a poetry contest, she gets to appear on a local chat show (Chris O'Dowd plays the host), where her stage fright leads to an ill-advised Scooby-Doo impression. The next day, kids make fun of her--even more than usual--and authorities put the kibosh on Pat's unlicensed border collie-breeding business. What's a girl to do, except to reinvent herself? She gets her chance when she enters a music writer contest, but even the all-male staffers at London's D&ME, a Melody Maker-like music weekly, make fun of her. They found her review, of the Annie soundtrack, well written, but so uncool they thought she was doing a bit, but she was just being herself.

Lily Allen (Elizabeth Taylor) once wrote a song about her brother Alfie

So, she decides to revamp her image. Considering that she knows as much about fashion as she does pop music, she ends up looking like a refugee from The Rocky Horror Picture Show with her flame-red hair, fishnet tights, and waiter's jacket. In the book, Johanna dyes her hair black, but she does note a fondness for redheads, like Little Orphan Annie. To go along with the new look, she adopts the pen name Dolly Wilde (Moran's script fails to explain that Dolly was Oscar Wilde's rebellious niece, though the inclusion of Bikini Kill's "Rebel Girl" on the soundtrack surreptitiously nods to that fact).

Then, Johanna launches her career with a review of a Manic Street Preachers gig. There are more reviews to come as she finds herself living a life much like Cameron Crowe's alter ego in Almost Famous…except she's a girl, she still lives at home, and she writes for a regional publication. Just as William's mother supported his music-journalist dreams in Almost Famous, albeit with Britpop standing in for classic rock, Johanna's parents do the same, which also brings Stephen Merchant's Fighting With My Family to mind, since he captured a similarly non-judgmental, working-class milieu.

Nowadays, a music writer probably couldn't do much to pull their family out of debt, but Johanna helps hers to get back on their feet, since Angie (Sarah Solemani) is stuck at home with twins--the results of an unplanned pregnancy--and Pat, who once dreamed of pop stardom, is on disability.

Johanna and her all-male, music weekly colleagues / IFC
For her first feature, Johanna travels to Dublin to interview a balladeer, John Kite (Alfie Allen, Lily Allen's brother and an Emmy nominee for Game of Thrones), who finds her utterly charming. To her credit, she doesn't smoke or drink. To his credit, he doesn't insist, and though she invites him up to her hotel room, they don't sleep together. She falls in love with him, which seems like a terrible idea, but an understandable one, considering that most men have ignored her up until now. Unfortunately, her editor hates the story, which reads like a mash note, and her career appears to be over as soon as it began, so she reinvents herself yet again, this time as a mean girl. To wit, "It's a truth, universally acknowledged, that Paul Simon looks like a toe someone drew a face on."

Once she segues to the Dark Side, she drinks, smokes, and sleeps around, but that's par for the rock and roll course. More critically, she insults her family and betrays a subject's confidence. If her rise was compelling, her fall feels overly-familiar, though Johanna never goes as far as Elisabeth Moss's rock star character in Alex Ross Perry's Her Smell. Still, she crashes hard, and she has to struggle mightily to free herself from the wreckage--in a way that recalls Alcoholics Anonymous's Steps 9 and 10: "Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all" and "Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others." By the end, she's still 16, fat, and single, but she's found her purpose in life. And it isn't writing snarky reviews for a music weekly, a lesson that takes decades for some people to learn. If I found the ending a little too good to be true, I can't say I wasn't moved.

How to Build a Girl is available from cable and digital platforms, including iTunes, Amazon, GooglePlay, YouTube, Comcast, and DirecTV.