Once again, I must begin by explaining that I veer regularly toward all things British. I have some YA Brit comedies in my cupboard, ala Angus, Thongs, and Perfect Snogging. So when How to Build a Girl showed up in my previews, I immediately put it on my to-watch list. Though it is based on a book, I decided I didn’t, in this case, need to read the book and I delved right in, one night, with a whopping $4 rental.
Let me first tell you what it is about. Based very loosely on author Caitlin Moran’s life (though she claims it to be fiction), we meet Johanna, a helplessly optimistic, starry-eyed, smart, well-read, and nerdy highschooler who wants desperately to escape her dysfunctional, poor household in her working-class town and become a writer with a big life. She loves her quirky family, but some things have fallen apart over the years and she no longer feels parented. Her best friend is her brother, Krissi, and with a little nudge from his fanzine, she stumbles into a job as a critic for a music magazine. Though she has relentless issues with being taken serious—as a sixteen-year-old, overweight, awkward, and bubbly girl—and is perpetually bullied, she uses humor and talent to remake her image and rocket herself toward rent, stardom, and the fast life. The fast life takes its toll quickly and Johanna must confront who she has become to get her where she now is and is headed.
See? Sounds kinda interesting, though maybe already done, like in Almost Famous. (That was a good movie, wasn’t it? I watched it such a long time ago.) It doesn’t feel already done when you’re watching it, because Johanna is such a quirky character and well acted, she just splashes out all over the screen. And there are little things, like how she has no friends but the photos of famous people from Emily and Charlotte Bronte to Sylvia Plath and Sigmund Freud on her bedroom wall speak to her when she needs advice. The camera occasionally tilts or skews. Reality and fantasy blur now and again. The soundtrack swings from Annie’s “Tomorrow” to Salt ‘n’ Pepa to the Pretenders. Johanna’s fiery, red hair and outlandish outfits seem to fill the entire screen. It has it’s uniqueness. Also, the love interest—Alfie Allen—is so very charming and believable. But speaking of love, this movie is largely about sexual awakening and for me, it crossed way over the line into crass. I mean, it kind of makes sense that if you have no boyfriend and you are suddenly famous at sixteen, you might have some abnormal sexual experimentation, but Johanna is just gagging for it from the first scenes and it never quits. While I sort of appreciate taking some of the sexual initiative out of the male camp and into the female, because that’s real, especially in the current first world, it was a sad, dangerous way to go about it and it was way overkill on the screen. (It’s rated R for swearing and for a number of sex scenes which largely come in quick succession.) The crassness didn’t make sense to me, anyway, given her personality, heroes, and family.
As for this movie being about a writer (and therefore warranting a review on The Starving Artist), it falls into line with every other movie about a writer I have ever seen: success comes way too easy. I mean, the whole story takes place while Johanna’s baby siblings don’t even age—she stays sixteen through the whole thing—and while you often wonder will she?, she always does. Like all the other writer movies. While this makes for an interesting—and somewhat true story—it leaves me still waiting for art about what it’s actually like to be most artists: the slog, the dedication, the many hats, the relentless rejection…
With mostly positive reviews from critics, I would have been much more into it without the crassness (and, let’s be honest, the inappropriateness of her age and the many adults who take advantage of her). As it is, I just can’t recommend it for actual teenagers, though the ending is really thoughtful, something you don’t often see in stories. An oft-forgotten moral (besides “be true to yourself,” which we always knew was coming). I like the ending.