In the new movie How to Build a Girl, Beanie Feldstein, 26, plays her first English schoolgirl, Johanna Morrigan, who’s as precocious as the Californian 12th-graders she portrayed in Lady Bird and Booksmart. Johanna is an ambitious academic wiz. One of her bedroom walls is plastered with pictures of her idols, who include Elizabeth Taylor, Sigmund Freud, Jo March, Sylvia Plath, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, and David Bowie. Most of them, impersonated by such stars as Michael Sheen, Lily Allen, and Sharon Horgan, come magically alive—echoing Hogwarts’s portraits of the dead—and offer Johanna advice, or flinch when she stumbles on her journey of moral and sexual self-discovery.
Right now, Feldstein is voluntarily locked down at her parents’ L.A. home. Whose pictures would she pin on her childhood-bedroom walls? “That was my favorite thing to ask every cast and crew member … I’d have Eleanor Roosevelt, Stephen Sondheim, Carole King, Sandra Oh, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, August Wilson. I’m trying to think of every side of myself. I could go on forever. I’m such a devoted-fan type, which is another reason why I loved playing Johanna, because I share the way she loves so many people.”
Alas, Johanna’s fandom—not for her personal icons, but for pop musicians circa 1990—is corrupted in this caustic, class-conscious coming-of-age comedy directed by Coky Giedroyc. To support her debt-laden family, who live in subsidized housing in Wolverhampton—an anemic industrial town—Johanna wrangles a gig as a critic on a louche London music weekly, staffed mostly by sexist cynics from privileged backgrounds, that recalls New Musical Express in its late-1970s heyday. “Dolly Wilde,” the byline and sybaritic alter ego Johanna creates for herself, was presumably borrowed from Oscar’s Parisian-socialite niece.
“I’d have Eleanor Roosevelt, Stephen Sondheim, Carole King, Sandra Oh, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, August Wilson.”
Available through video on demand, How to Build a Girl was adapted by the Times (of London) journalist Caitlin Moran from the first novel in her semi-autobiographical feminist trilogy. Johanna is an amalgam of Moran, who began writing for Melody Maker at 16, and her notoriously venomous predecessor, Julie Burchill, who was 17 when her reviews first appeared in NME.
Feldstein nails both Johanna’s thick “Wolves” accent (she prepped by working as a shopgirl and pulling pints in the English West Midlands city) and her scary yet hilarious transformation from naïve music-lover into self-willed scourge of rock, from virgin to man-eater. Her front-page betrayal of a melancholy Welsh troubadour, played by Alfie Allen, who’d trusted her with his secrets, is the pit from which she has to climb to find redemption.
“I love that line in the film where Johanna says, ‘Once you cross over into the dark side, it doesn’t feel bad at all,’” Feldstein says. “I think we’ve all experienced that for different reasons. When you’re in those quote-unquote phases, the stakes are so high they feel so immensely real and important. Johanna starts to lose sight of herself, but I always come back to the idea that she started Dolly Wilde from necessity. It was her way of getting her family out of poverty. I love that passion is currency—and Johanna has more of it than anyone else.”
Graham Fuller is a freelance journalist based in New York