How to Build a Girl review – an adaptation without a voice

Caitlin Moran adapts her own bestselling book about a teenager who starts a career in musical journalism to dwindling results

On the very first page of Caitlin Moran’s bestselling sort-of memoir How to Build a Girl, a teenage girl describes the awkward act of trying to masturbate in bed while her six-year-old brother lies asleep next to her. It’s a disarming but darkly comic opener that sets the tone for the idiosyncratic novel to come – a perfect encapsulation of Moran’s singular, uncompromising voice.

No such luck here, though. There is more acerbic wit on that first page than spread throughout the entirety of this broadly-drawn and dated adaptation from filmmaker Coky Giedroyc. Well, that can happen when another writer adapts another writer's book. But wait! Keen-eyed viewers will notice that this film was, in fact, written by Moran herself, who has watered down her own words to give us something that is perhaps more accessible but also entirely unremarkable.

Beanie Feldstein, great in Lady Bird and even greater in Booksmart, is enthusiastic and likeable but perhaps miscast in the lead role of Wolverhampton teenager Johanna Korrigan, a character loosely based on Moran herself. After her dreams of literary fame are shattered by an embarrassing TV appearance, she gets a job on a male-dominated music magazine in the vein of the NME and begins an unexpected career in music journalism after making them laugh with a review of the soundtrack to Annie. Quickly she becomes the breadwinner to her low income family, which consists of post-natal depression-addled mum (Sarah Solemani), failed musician dad (Paddy Considine, a welcomed presence), and more siblings than you can count.

It is no easy task for an American to attempt a British accent, especially a regional one, and Feldstein struggles with the Wolverhampton accent here, resorting to the same high pitched tone for every line delivery. It is, sadly, one of those performances where the actor is so preoccupied with getting an accent right that they can't quite find a way into their usual talents. It doesn't help, either, that Feldstein is in her late twenties; she is young looking, but her casting as a sixteen-year-old strains credibility.

The rest is like an awkward blend of Submarine and Almost Famous, but with very little of the detail and drama that made those films shine. A whirlpool of caricatures and terrible accents dominates the picture; Alfie Allen turns up as a musician and sort of romantic interest but his part is made entirely incomprehensible by his own attempt at sounding Welsh. Even cameos from an admittedly impressive smörgåsbord of famous Brits, including Michael Sheen, Lily Allen, and Sharon Horgan, featured as talking pictures of famous people pinned to Johanna's wall, can't rescue the film from its own banality.

There are no surprises, no big moments of drama, no laughs, and nothing to sell you on its depiction of 90s Britain – no real exploration of feminism or class or gender division in the workplace. How to Build a Girl is the sort of film you desperately try to like, because it is so desperate to be liked. It is not a complete disaster, yet that might have made for a more interesting film. Instead what we get is just, well, a bit naff.

How to Build a Girl is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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