TIFF ’19 Review: A Different Kind of Superhero Origin Story Has a Strong Foundation in “How to Build a Girl”

Even if one were to walk into “How to Build a Girl” without knowing Caitlin Moran’s place in England’s cultural firmament, the realization would come pretty quickly of just how big it is based on the number of actors who stop by to make a cameo in the adaptation of the writer’s loosely autobiographical novel about a young woman growing up in the wilds of working class Wolverhampton, hoping to break free to the big city by becoming a music writer. For instance when director Coky Giedroyc has to populate a wall of icons above the bed of Moran’s teenage on-screen alter ego Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein) to give her advice, the faces are nearly as famous as the legendary figures they portray, from Frida Kahlo to Karl Marx to Sylvia Plath, and the scene from the script that Moran wrote with John Niven is one of those inspired ideas that makes it clear why she is so beloved.

“How to Build a Girl,” of course, is about the moment when it felt like that could never be the case with Johanna’s flowery and prolific prose putting her at odds with classmates at school and having no one to confide in at home where she’s got four brothers, a mother (Sarah Solemani) who’s always busy tending to the younger ones and a father (Paddy Considine) who still has aspirations of scoring a record deal with his garage band. Opportunity arrives with an ad in the local paper for a rock critic at D&NME Magazine and with the anonymity granted by the pre-internet age, the 16-year-old submits a review of the soundtrack for “Annie” and gets a callback – not necessarily based on her work sample, but by the puckish staffers who wanted to see whether she could possibly be for real. As it turns out, Johanna’s misfit status proves to make her right at home at the music rag, but rather than allowing her to find an authentic voice, the demands of impressing snooty peers and readers who want to be entertained rather than informed, particularly in a male-dominated field, pushes her towards vitriol that may contribute to making a name for herself – in fact, she rechristens herself Dolly Wilde, but that isn’t, nor can it ever really be her own.

While Dolly embraces irony and sarcasm, “How to Build a Girl” is refreshingly earnest and sincere, a throwback to the coming-of-age comedies that were made when the film is set during the mid ‘90s and although the plot mechanics may seem familiar when Johanna is forced to reckon with her alter ego’s snarky ways, particularly in torching an artist (Alfie Allen) who opens up to her off the record, there’s no way a film that opens to the sneering synth sound of Elastica’s “Connection” is going to seem rote. Feldstein is as winning as always as Johanna, able to show how a teen’s inexperience can be as much of a strength as it is a liability as she confidently takes on a world she might not if she knew any better, and Moran and Niven throw a number of intriguing wrinkles into the story of a journalist who starts to confuse their own status with the people they cover, especially when Johanna’s family comes to depend on her financially.

Writing may be inherently challenging to capture on film, but when it’s as lively and vivid as Moran’s, it’s cinematic to begin with and it turns out to be wonderfully analogous that in telling a story of someone discovering her innate talent, “How to Build a Girl” does the same in bringing out the best in its source material.

“How to Build a Girl” is now available to stream.