I’ll declare my interest. I’m a Brummie, so any film set in my home city, or the West Midlands, is going to grab my interest. Especially when it comes to the cast’s efforts to reproduce that accent. It’s the one I’ve spent most of my life trying to shake off, the one that always comes last in popularity polls because it sounds like one long whinge – and the one that’s notoriously difficult to imitate convincingly.
It’s Beanie Feldstein who finds herself in the dock. Her 16 year old Johanna in How To Build A Girl lives on a council estate in Wolverhampton (OK, I know, that makes her from The Black Country, not Brum), has half a bedroom to herself (it’s divided by a partition, with her brother on the other side) and goes to the local comprehensive, where she’s regarded as something of an oddity. But she has big dreams of getting out of what she considers to be a life beneath her and she blags her way into a writing job on a London-based music magazine. Re-inventing herself as outrageous journalist Dolly Wilde, with a fashion style that makes her look like a red headed 1980s Babadook, she becomes notorious for her savage reviews and wins awards along the way, but finds that her route to fame – and fame itself – isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Johanna is mainly based on columnist Caitlin Moran, who wrote the original autobiographical novel of the same title. Her West Midlands upbringing was documented in the C4 sitcom Raised By Wolves, so fans of the show will be on familiar, if perhaps toned down, territory. And she’s played by Feldstein with all the warmth and gusto that characterised her performances in Lady Bird and Booksmart but with, of course, an accent. A passable one, but also one that seems to ebb and flow at will. As her easy going, aspiring musician dad, who hopes her fame as a music journalist is the big break he’s dreamed of, Paddy Considine has the best version of those nasal tones. He also gives the standout performance in the film, feckless but always believably likeable.
With its 80s setting – all cassette tapes, manual typewriters and traditional newsagents – its council estate, its comprehensive school and that longing to break away from their limitations, there are definite echoes of Gurinda Chadha’s Blinded By The Light. But this is a film that puts the political issues of the day to one side and concentrates very much on its central character, not just her flamboyance but the sexism and the snobbery directed at her working- class background – she’s regarded as a “bit of rough” by her male colleagues. It threatens to crush her but instead gives her the impetus she needs to make her way up the ladder. That, and help from the inspirational figures on her bedroom wall, which include Sigmund Freud, Elizabeth Taylor and the Bronte Sisters, with whom she has some delicious imaginary conversations.
The result is a film with great charm, heart and humour, which revels in having a teenage girl at its centre. Yet it leaves you with the feeling that a little less charm and a little more focus on the themes, to match the sharpness Johanna displays in her writing, would have given us something even stronger. That said, it’s hard to take against a film that gives you such a big hug and makes you laugh so much.
How To Build A Girl is on Amazon Prime Video from 24 July.