“I’m not closed-minded, but finding the romantic hero of our age in Wolverhampton seems unlikely.”
For a significant proportion of the UK, it seems as though the West Midlands ends up being used as the butt of jokes, a punchline, a laughing stock. The accent tends to be the ‘go-to’ one when someone needs a form of shorthand for being slow or dim.
The West Midlands is unfairly seen by some as something of a cultural wasteland, with its main contributions seen as Spaghetti Junction and Crossroads. However, that region is also responsible for giving us William Shakespeare, Ozzy Osbourne, Baltis, and so many other things of note which really buck what has become a rather harsh stereotype. The same geographic area has also borne us Catherine Elizabeth Moran.
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Catherine is better known under her professional name of Caitlin (or sometimes CatMo), and in the last quarter of a century, she has made a niche for herself as a broadcaster, author and feminist. Having originated in Wolverhampton, she has literally written her way out of the Black Country, with a witty, engaging and razor-sharp style, allowing her to slip in polemic, by using her humour like a Trojan Horse, whether penning articles or works of fiction.
Moran’s 2014 novel How To Build A Girl was greeted with acclaim, and has now been adapted into a movie; originally planned to have a theatrical release, the impact of COVID-19 has meant a change of plans, with it being snapped up by Amazon Prime Video instead. Once upon a time, such a move would have been seen as the equivalent of ‘straight to video’, but the landscape has changed of late, and first-run streaming is no longer a taboo notion.
How To Build A Girl depicts the story of Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein), a 16 year old living with her family on a council estate in 1990s Wolverhampton. Desperate to grow as a person, and break away from her background, she has dreams of becoming a writer, seeing it as being a path to a new life. After pursuing a job doing pieces for a music paper in London, she finally gets her big break, reinventing herself as ‘Dolly Wilde’ in the process.
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Yearning to stretch her skills and move on from doing only reviews, she gets the chance to interview musician John Kite (Alfie Allen), with whom she forms a very strong emotional attachment. However, the article she submits to her editor gets rejected for being like something written by an adoring teen with a crush. Johanna realises the key to success in her writing appears to be by being negative and bitchy, which is the opposite of who she is, and it leads her into a reckoning over who she really wants to grow up to be.
Anyone who has followed Moran’s career will find some of these beats rather familiar. Moran started her professional career working for Melody Maker, and her formative years in Wolverhampton feature in her writing, such as her 2011 book How To Be A Woman. A fictionalised version of her adolescence formed the basis of Moran’s Channel 4 sitcom Raised By Wolves, with her sister Caroline as co-writer on the show, telling the story of a group of siblings growing up on a contemporary Wolverhampton council estate.
It even goes right back to her first novel, The Chronicles Of Narmo, which Moran penned in her mid-teens; the heroine, Morag (similar to ‘Moran’) Narmo (an anagram of ‘Moran’), is 15 years old, part of a large family, and she ends up being home schooled, all of which relate to Moran’s own life. This does have the unfortunate effect of causing the lines to blur somewhat not just between all her works of fiction, but also with her own personal backstory, and these all tend to start overlapping by this stage in her career.
A piece of advice which budding scribes will often receive is ‘write what you know’, and it seems Moran has taken this to heart to the nth degree. Telling these stories so inextricably linked to her own life and persona, it feels like she is always revisiting and reinterpreting her creation myth; with its now umpteenth retelling here, it borders upon the repetition of Hollywood doing varying iterations of the superhero origin story, keeping the bare bones the same each time, yet also trying to give it a subtle new spin.
As a consequence, by the time How To Build A Girl gets to our screens, it comes across as almost seeming like risking one trip to the well too many, and a demonstration of the law of diminishing returns. While Moran is undoubtedly a truly wonderful writer, and is brilliantly gifted at what she does, it now comes across as somebody who is putting off the major challenge of making that difficult second album by constantly issuing remixes of the first, to reduced effect each time if you know their back catalogue.
In an interview about the release of How To Build A Girl in its original novel form, Moran explained how Johanna/Dolly had elements of her own experiences in the mix, but a lot of the character was based on journalist Julie Burchill, who came from a working class background as well, and has had a similar trajectory, as she worked for NME. As such, Moran has managed to write something semi-autobiographical at heart, yet also has a ‘Mary Sue’ filling her role.
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All that being said, there is still an awful lot to enjoy about How To Build A Girl, particularly heightened if you happen to be coming into this prior any exposure to Moran’s earlier writings. While not always laugh-out-loud funny, there are still plenty of wry smiles to be had, and relatable moments in abundance, especially for anyone who grew up with many brothers and/or sisters. The central romantic interest in the form of John Kite is delivered beautifully by Alfie Allen, who somehow manages to combine Bowie with Harry Styles, yet still deliver someone unique and endearing.
The success of How To Build A Girl largely rests or falls on its lead, and Beanie Feldstein seems like an unconventional pick to play Johanna – the LA-born sister of Jonah Hill may not be the most obvious choice to portray a council estate girl from Wolverhampton. However, she manages to deliver a turn of considerable charm, which makes it all the more gut-wrenching when you see Johanna letting her alter ego (emphasis firmly on ‘ego’) of Dolly take control, turning her away from her principles and who she should be.
As part of Feldstein’s preparations for the role, the director Coky Giedroyc had her work in a shop in Wolverhampton so she could practice her accent; sadly, it appears not to have been enough, as this is where Feldstein’s performance falls short – she does spend a lot of the film grappling with the distinctive Black Country drawl, and neither side apparently wins that tussle. While there is the odd moment here and there where she nails it, for the most part she sounds like a curious mix of Irish and Paul McCartney’s soft Liverpudlian burr.
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Giedroyc has managed to assemble a strong supporting cast here, with top turns from both Paddy Considine and Sarah Solemani as Johanna’s parents. Johanna has what she calls her “wall of gods” in her bedroom, with pictures of her idols who come to life and speak to her at various points during the movie, and the talent assembled to bring them to life is impressive – Alexei Sayle, Andi Oliver, Mel Giedroyc & Sue Perkins, Gemma Arterton, Michael Sheen, Sharon Horgan, Lucy Punch, Jameela Jamil and Lily Allen each give their all in these bit parts as other people, to their credit.
At a lean 102 minutes, the film certainly does not overstay its welcome, and moves along at a decent pace, delivering plenty of entertainment along the way. With Moran having planned a trilogy, and the second novel in the series – How To Be Famous – already in print, a follow-up to the movie adaptation of How To Build A Girl is very much deserved. We can only hope that when it comes to adapting her own work once again, Moran spends the time working on how to build a better sequel.