How to Build a Girl


Johanna Morrigan contemplates a boring future.

(2019) Dramedy (IFCBeanie Feldstein, Alfie Allen, Paddy Considine, Emma Thompson, Sarah Solemani, Laurie Kynaston, Frank Dillane, Arinzé Kene, Gemma Arterton, Chris O’Dowd, Michael Sheen, Lucy Punch, Lily Allen, Alexei Sayle, Joanna Scanlon, Sharon Horgan, Patsy Ferran, Ziggy Heath, Bobby Schofield, Mel Giedroyc, Sue Perkins. Directed by Coky Giedroyc

 

When it comes right down to it, adolescence is a process in which we invent ourselves. The trouble is, we rarely know what it is we want to be. We often reach for the stars only to realize that our arms just aren’t that long. But as anybody who knows England will tell you, it’s almost impossible to reach the heights from Wolverhampton.

And it is from that dowdy suburban landscape that teen dreamer Johanna Morrigan (Feldstein) finds herself. Socially awkward but possessed of a talent for writing, she feels trapped in a place that doesn’t hold enough interest for her. An entry into a poetry contest ends up causing her even more humiliation and embarrassment than ever.

Her home life isn’t much better. She lives in a cramped household flat with her mother (Solemani) who suffers from post-partum depression after an unexpected birth of twins, her cheerful father (Considine) who dreams of the rock and roll stardom that he has thus far failed to find and her brother Krissi (Kynaston) who has the same frustrations she does and channels it into a fanzine. In her loneliness, she carries on conversations with photos of her heroes which she keeps on her wall; Sigmund Freud (Sheen), Maria von Trapp (Arterton), Sylvia Plath (Punch) and Elizabeth Taylor (L. Allen), among others.

Yes, it’s the 90s and Britpop is coming into its glory. Johanna manages to wrangle and interview with a Melody Maker-like British rock rag called D&ME but discovers when she travels to London that the somewhat snarky editorial staff thought that her submitted review of the soundtrack of Annie was a joke.

Utterly defeated, she ends up crying in a loo where a poster of Bjork (Ferrari) gives her a pep talk. Heartened, she storms back into the office and demands an opportunity. Taken aback, they assign her to review a Manic Street Preachers concert in Manchester.

She does okay and manages to convince them to give her an opportunity at a feature, an interview with up and coming rocker John Kite (A. Allen) whom she promptly falls head over heels over and he in turn opens up about his demons. Her piece, though, is a gushing, fawning puff piece that the snarky folks at D&ME don’t have any use for.

Stung, she resolves to be the biggest bitch she can possibly be and that turns out to be considerable. Reinventing herself as Dolly Wilde, a flame-haired, top hat-wearing libertine vixen who writes with poison pen and has as much casual sex as she can possibly get. But her persona begins to take over as she alienates everyone close to her, from John Kite whose trust she breaks, to her parents whom she humiliates by throwing in their face that she’s paying the rent. When she realizes that the people she’s trying to impress aren’t worth impressing, she is forced to re-examine who she is and who she wants to be.

Some have compared this to a distaff version of Almost Famous which isn’t too far off the mark; like that film, this story is based on writer Caitlin Moran’s own experiences as a teen rock critic for Melody Maker in the 90s. Make that very loosely based. There is an air of fantasy to this; the lifestyle depicted for the writers for the rag aren’t realistic; I can tell you as a not-so-teenaged rock critic in the 90s in the San Francisco Bay Area that all music critics are notoriously low-paid. That’s because there are far more people who want the job than there are jobs available; it’s the law of supply and demand.

Feldstein though takes a character who isn’t always lovable and makes her root-worthy. For the most part she has an endearing joie de vivre that permeates the film and makes it a pleasurable viewing. Even when she’s being a cast-iron jerk the audience knows that really isn’t Johanna.

There are literally dozens of cameos, including Emma Thompson as an encouraging editor late in the film to the ones mentioned earlier playing pictures on the wall. Particularly fun is Chris O’Dowd as a somewhat bewildered host of a local arts show.

\The soundtrack is full of a goodly amount of righteous period music, including tracks by Bikini Kill during a fun thrift store transformation sequence. Even if the story falls into cliché near the end, the good nature at the heart of the film coupled with the good will that Feldstein’s performance earns from the audience are enough to carry it through.

REASONS TO SEE: The film has a sweetness at its core. Feldstein is a star in the making.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally succumbs to clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some teen sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alfie Allen, who plays a singer, is the younger brother of Lily Allen, an actual singer who has a role here as one of the Bronte sisters.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews; Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Almost Famous
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

David Brent: Life on the Road


David Brent is his own biggest fan.

(2016) Comedy (Netflix) Ricky Gervais, Ben Bailey “Doc Brown” Smith, Jo Hartley, Tom Basden, Mandeep Dhillon, Abbie Murphy, Andrew Brooke, Tom Bennett, Rebecca Gethings, Andy Burrows, Stuart Wilkinson, Steve Clarke, Michael Clarke, Nina Sosanya, Stacha Hicks, Kevin Bishop, Alexander Arnold, Dermot Keaney, Diane Morgan. Directed by Ricky Gervais

 

Most Americans are aware of the version of the sitcom The Office that starred Steve Carell and a fair amount of them are probably aware that it was based on a British version starring Ricky Gervais. Much fewer of the American audience have probably ever seen any of the British episodes and fewer still will likely have enjoyed it; certainly it is an acquired taste and although it shares many attributes with the American version, the two are quite different.

David Brent (Gervais) was the boss in The Office but he’s fallen on hard times. He works as a salesman of toilet cleaning products for a company called Lavichem and although he turns a somewhat upbeat face to it, one can tell that he is not satisfied at all with the way things have turned out. He’s bullied mercilessly by fellow salesman Jezza (Brooke) and is often the subject of serious conversations with HR manager Miriam Clark (Gethings).

He isn’t without admirers though, like Nigel (Bennett) who looks up to him as a comic mentor, or hopelessly besotted Pauline (Hartley) and the sweet receptionist Karen (Dhillon).  Still, Brent can’t help but feel as if his destiny is passing him by and that destiny is to be – a rock star. So, he assembles a second version of his original band Foregone Conclusion (which includes We are Scientists drummer Andy Burrows) and taking unpaid leave from Lavichem hits the road to do ten dates in the Midlands….all within a few hours’ drive of his flat in London. Along for the unwilling ride is Dom Johnson (Brown), a fairly talented rapper whom David brings along for the street cred he miserably lacks and whom David generally refuses to allow to perform except to use David’s abhorrent lyrics. Cashing out his pension, David undergoes financing the entire tour himself, much to the concern of sound engineer/road manager Andy Chapman (Chapman).

David’s tendency is to blurt out whatever comes to mind without first passing it through a filter, following it with a sort of strangled giggle as if to say “Oh dear, what have I gone and said now?” as a kind of embarrassed signature. He stops conversations dead with his pronouncements and off-the-wall observations that betray sexism and bigotry that most people have the good sense to keep to themselves if they possess those tendencies at all.

True to form, he alienates everyone in his band to the point where they force him not to join them on the tour bus he rented but to follow in his own car behind it. They refuse to dress with him, forcing him to have his own dressing room. The songs that he writes for them to play are pretty awful and the band is humiliated at gig after gig; the only saving grace is that nobody is showing up at them and those that do are drawn out of curiosity to Brent’s quasi-fame (the film treats The Office as a documentary which of course it was made to resemble) and most leave well before the gig is over.

Against all odds, one ends up feeling a kind of sympathy for Brent. He’s the guy who doesn’t realize that he is the joke and nobody is laughing. Still, he soldiers on either because he’s oblivious or refuses to let it get him down. There is a kind of nobility in that which is fascinating, because believe me Brent says some of the vilest things. There is a whole sequence around the “N” word that takes uncomfortable to new levels.

This is a comedy of awkward silences. There is no laugh track and no incidental music, just like the sitcom. The silence serves to make the audience feel more and more uncomfortable which I suppose is a form of humor. In its time it was innovative although it seems a bit dated now. The problem is that the movie doesn’t really add anything to what’s already out there; although Gervais has gone to great pains to distance this project from The Office, his presence essentially makes the sitcom the elephant in the room by default. That begs the question; why did this film need to get made? Some fans will just be happy to see Brent back in the saddle but others will need more than that.

In general, those who adored the British version of The Office will likely enjoy this or at least be interested in checking it out. Those who found the show puzzling will likely not find any insights here that will change their minds. It’s definitely an acquired taste and those who have not yet acquired it should probably give this a miss. Otherwise, those who have might find something here worth ingesting although they likely won’t find it as good as the original.

REASONS TO GO: Gervais actually manages to make Brent somewhat sympathetic. Fans of the British Office will find this right up their alley.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s a very acquired taste, just like the original The Office. It’s an hour and 36 minutes of awkward.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual innuendo and drug humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although David Brent is depicted driving a car on numerous occasions in the film, Ricky Gervais actually doesn’t know how to drive.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Office (BBC Version)
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Burning Sands