Toronto Film Festival 2019: ‘How to Build a Girl’ is a dose of reality

Something rang awfully familiar to this film critic in “How to Build a Girl,” the story of an enthusiastic but inexperienced female writer trying to break into a field dominated by cliquey older men.

So I’m not going to even pretend I’m reviewing it without bias. I suspect, however, that nearly everyone can find joy and relatability in this sparkling adaptation of British journalist Caitlin Moran’s “true-ish” coming-of-age story from female director Coky Giedroyc (“Harlots”).

Furthermore, it’ll be your second chance this year to appreciate the continuing and well-deserved ascendancy of actress Beanie Feldstein (“Booksmart”). Unlike many an American actor who’s taken on a British role, she manages the accent so well that I genuinely forgot she was doing one by the time we were 15 minutes into the movie. Even Renee Zellweger’s lovable Bridget Jones didn’t pull that off.

Feldstein stars as bookish and bored high schooler Johanna Morrigan, longing for something exciting to happen to her in the doldrums of her working-class town living with four young brothers, an exhausted mother and an underemployed father (Paddy Considine) who still cheerfully thinks he’s going to make it as a rock drummer one day.

Author Caitlin Moran
Author Caitlin MoranWireImage

Johanna may be temporarily trapped, but she’s got a vivid imagination, an infectious zest for life and a bedroom wall decorated with pictures of literary heroes who dole out advice, from Sylvia Plath (Sharon Horgan) to Jo March of “Little Women” (Catherine Tate) to the somewhat disapproving Sigmund Freud (Michael Sheen).

Opportunity strikes when Johanna wins a poetry contest for a local TV station that, though hilariously awkward in presentation (it concludes with her inexplicably belting out “Scooby Dooby Doo!”), leads to a job interview writing reviews for a London music rag.

When she gets the gig through sheer force of personality — despite being 16 years old and knowing absolutely nothing about rock — she reinvents herself as “Dolly Wilde,” a flame-haired character who dresses like an extra from “Rocky Horror,” refers to herself as a “lady sex pirate” and discovers she’s got a way with a poison pen.

The ensuing saga of her swashbuckling entry into rock journalism includes a nascent friendship with, and painful crush on, a Jeff Buckley-esque singer named John Kite (Alfie Allen), and a long-awaited entry into the popular group both at school and at the magazine, when she begins to hit her stride eviscerating up-and-coming indie bands, much to the delight of her catty male colleagues.

“The thing about crossing over to the dark side,” she says, “is that it doesn’t feel dark at all. It feels warm and welcoming.”

Alfie Allen
Alfie AllenWireImage

Anyone familiar with Moran’s writing (her book “How to Be a Woman” should be on every woman’s shelf) will know she emerges from this period with her soul intact, but Johanna’s struggle with the pull of being a celebrity journalist famous for her witty cruelty is raw, and truthful, and in today’s world of clickbait, awfully topical.

Even when “How to Build a Girl” flags a bit in the middle — as nearly all rom-coms do — I loved it all the way through, and wanted to watch it again immediately. I was, however, a tiny bit disappointed at the absence of one of the author’s very funniest bits from the book, a lengthy and lusty ode to Johanna’s discovery of masturbation.

It’s only mildly hinted at in the movie — which does manage to include a very bawdy description of learning how to have sex with an overly well-endowed gentleman — so I’m perplexed as to why this particular material is gone.

Perhaps teen onanism is still considered a bridge too far for some movie studios, though if the stuffed panda used for dirty deeds in “Booksmart” is any indication, we’re pretty far across it already.

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