How To Build A Girl review: this Amazon Prime Video film is a love letter to being true to yourself

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This Amazon Prime film reminds us to embrace life with all the eagerness and excitement of a teenage girl.

When Hollywood producers decide to adapt a book as popular as Caitlin Moran’s How To Build A Girl, there’s a lot of pressure to get it right. A lot of pressure.

Amazon Prime’s adaptation of Moran’s 2014 semi-autobiographical novel sticks closely to the original story of 16-year-old bookworm Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein), whose life is turned upside down when she gets a job with D&ME magazine and rebrands herself as music journalist Dolly Wilde. 

During her journey of self-discovery, we watch as Johanna/Dolly experiences many highs and lows. There’s her all-too-familiar ‘first love’ in the form of a monumental unrequited crush on musician John Kite (played by Alfie Allen at his most charming). There’s her DIY makeover, involving a box dye kit in the brightest red hue possible. There’s her behaviour at the industry’s increasingly debauched parties, too, not to mention her growing infamy in the music industry – albeit for scathing hatchet jobs, rather than the disarmingly earnest reviews she first set out to write.

And, all the while, we see Johanna tackle the issues faced by many young working-class women growing up – sexism and classism. Being the only female staff member at D&ME, she’s subjected to some seriously seedy behaviour from her older elitist male colleagues. In fact, in her quest to ‘build a girl’, she ends up playing by men’s rules just so that she can be part of their gang. She believes, wrongly, that they see her as an equal. Is it any wonder, then, that our heroine is shattered when she walks in on one of them bragging about having sex with her?

“I am not your bit of rough,” she tells him furiously. “You’re my bit of posh!”

Watch the trailer for Amazon Prime’s How To Build A Girl below:

The exuberant Johanna is, of course, played by Feldstein, who captures the character’s innocence and enthusiasm perfectly (while delivering a passable Wolverhampton accent). She’s supported by a pretty stellar British cast, too, with Paddy Considine putting in a solid performance as Johanna’s wannabe rockstar dad. And the film is packed to the brim with cameos from a host of famous faces, including Jameela Jamil and Emma Thompson.

This outstanding cast, though, is by far from the only reason to watch this movie

Johanna is a coming-of-age heroine with a difference. She’s not cool or popular, like the Cher Horowitzs and Cady Herons we’re used to. Instead, she’s a bookworm who counts the Bronte sisters among her personal heroes, hangs out in the library fantasising about the cute boys she doesn’t speak to, and considers her dog to be her best friend. (I don’t know about you, but this is much closer to my experience of being a teenager than the likes of Skins or Euphoria.)

Johanna, too, breaks the mould in other ways: she (shock horror) has periods. Visibly. On-screen. Unlike other female film outcasts (think Rachel Leigh Cook in She’s All That and Saoirse Ronan in Ladybird, to name just two), she’s not thin – a detail which stands out not just because we are so unused to seeing plus-size heroines on the screen (they’re usually relegated to the ‘best friend’ role), but also because it’s so rare for a plus-size character’s weight to go entirely unmentioned throughout the film, as it does here. 

caitlin moran
Caitlin Moran also stars in the How To Build A Girl movie.

Despite not being stereotypically ‘sexy’, Johanna is sexually adventurous, too, and wants everyone to know about it, even going so far as to recount her bedroom exploits to her horrified brother. And she’s not a rich American teen slumming it out by her private pool, either: instead, she’s a Wolverhampton girl, born and bred, and lives with her family in a cramped council house.

The Morrigan family’s poverty is never romanticised – in fact, the film even sees Johanna’s dad lose his disability benefits when he’s caught illegally breeding Border Collies. And How To Build A Girl tackles the frustration of growing up in a smaller house as part of a big family, too (Johanna has to share a bedroom with her brother, and hates it). 

Despite this, though, the adaptation doesn’t lean into that tired Hollywood trope of a low-income family being a source of misery: the Morrigan household pulsates with love and joy. And Johanna’s lack of privilege, if anything, only gives her a greater drive to succeed.

How To Build A Girl isn’t a perfect film. Far from it, actually: think wandering accents, an out-of-the-blue sexual experimentation scene, and two-dimensional supporting characters. The latter is particularly a problem with Johanna’s brother, Krissi (Laurie Kynaston), who’s clearly been written in as the tether between his sister’s newer, wilder life as Dolly and her more ordinary past. However, their relationship isn’t super-developed, which means his role as the ‘relatable entry point’ into Johanna’s world doesn’t always work. 

It’s also worth noting that Sarah Solemani, who plays Morrigan matriarch Angie, isn’t just criminally underused: she’s also a mere 10 years older than on-screen daughter Feldstein IRL. Which feels… yeah, more than a little unbelievable.

Despite all of the above, though, Amazon Prime’s adaptation is perfect viewing for anyone who has ever sat down to watch a coming-of-age film and found themself unable to relate to its perfectly put-together female lead. 

Why? Because it serves as a fierce and frank reminder that no young woman should have to fit a certain mould to succeed is 100% for you.

Over the course of 102 minutes, Johanna single-handedly proves that a girl who doesn’t look or sound or act like the ones we so often see on screen or in magazines can still come out on top by throwing herself wholeheartedly into every opportunity that comes her way. By making space for herself at the table. By inviting herself into the room where it happens. Because, as none other than Bjork (in the form of a talking poster, of course) tells Johanna outside the D&ME office: “Rooms like that need girls like you”.

In short, it’s a love letter in being true to yourself and embracing life with the eagerness and excitement of a teenage girl. And that’s a message we can all get on board with right about now.

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Images: Amazon Prime/Getty

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