Adelaide Film Festival 2020: How to Build a Girl

What: How to Build a Girl

When: 24 October 5:00pm (last screening!)

Cost: See website for details

Image from Adelaide Film Festival

How to Build a Girl is based on the novel by Caitlin Moran of the same name. Set in the 1990s, it is about a journey of self-discovery, sexual experimentation and the idea of desiring more. It’s a narrative that has been explored before, that is intended to appeal to teenagers and the teen inside us all. 

Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein) is a sixteen year old girl living in Wolverhampton, England, waiting for her ‘moment’ that girls always have in the books she reads – a moment where everything changes. This moment comes when her father is found out to be illegally claiming disability benefits, her family is plunged into poverty and Johanna takes it upon herself to make money to support them.

She sees an opening in the local paper about a London publication hiring a rock music critic. Miraculously, she gets the job (!?) and with it comes reinvention of herself to fit into this very adult world. She adopts a pseudonym – Dolly Wilde, dyes her hair an awful shade of cherry red and starts dressing herself like the Mad Hatter. 

Image from Wink Report

The situations she gets into as Dolly Wilde, whether autobiographical or not, are uncomfortable and frustrating to watch. Despite only being 16, she’s treated like an adult by everyone around her. Her male co-workers begin to ogle her, and she even sleeps with one of them. The detail she gives of her sexual exploits with older men questions the kind of message the film is trying to send. Not only that, but the idea that the only way you’ll be welcomed with the cool kids at school is if you sacrifice who you are, and what paved her way to success was through saying horrible things about other people’s craft. 

This film heavily leans on Beanie’s undeniable star power, she is exuberant in her role and a joy to watch, as always. While this film feels unique to the coming-of-age genre, ultimately it is underdeveloped. Labelled as a comedy, its humour rarely lands and is mostly cringe-inducing. In the end, it’s the film’s message that fails it. It’s something the script tries to fix in its conclusion, however, with Johanna looking into the camera reiterating some common narrative lessons – that you mustn’t lose sight of what’s important when in the face of success and you shouldn’t force yourself to be someone else to fit in. However, the ending doesn’t fix the damage that’s already been done.

3/5 stars

– by Rachel Wong

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