Joanna Scanlan

How To Build a Girl

13/11/20

Apple TV

Caitlin Moran’s 90s-set semi-autobiographical novel makes an awkward transition to film, with Moran handling screenplay duties and Coky Giedroyc directing. I say ‘awkward,’ because there’s quite a lot here that I like, but there are also elements that, to my mind, don’t quite come off. Moran’s own beginnings are well-documented (as are those of a young Julie Burchill, whose very similar formative years may also, I think, have provided some of the inspiration for this tale) and it’s inevitable that I spend much of the film speculating about who certain characters might be based on.

Beanie Feldstein stars as Johanna Morrigan, a literature-obsessed teenager who struggles to make friends in her hard-knock state school and whose only ally is her English teacher, Mrs Belling (Joanna Scanlan), who recognises her star pupil’s talent despite spending much of her time trying to rein her in. Johanna lives in a crowded council house alongside her knackered mum, Angie (Sarah Solemani), her jazz musician father, Pat (Paddy Considine), her brother, Krissi (Laurie Kynaston), and a whole clutch of squalling babies.

But when she enters and wins a local writing competition, it isn’t long before the world of music journalism beckons… and, almost before she knows it, she’s attending rock concerts and acquiring a reputation as the new hip gunslinger on the block, able to slay famous musicians with a single line of sarcasm.

But of course, all that careless bitching is sure to have repercussions somewhere further down the line…

Feldstein is a terrific talent, as her work in Booksmart attests, but, who decided to place her in a story set in Wolverhampton? To give Feldstein her due, she really does her best with what’s she’s been given, but her accent strays, inevitably, from Cardiff to Liverpool and all points in between, occasionally even paying visits to sunny California.

Furthermore, I’m not always entirely convinced by the depictions of working-class life on Johanna’s council estate, which at times feel distinctly caricatured, the memories of somebody who’s spent too many years in London’s hipster hangouts to achieve total recall.

But perhaps I’m being too harsh. For the most part, How To Build a Girl galumphs merrily along, liberally peppered with cameo roles from a whole raft of well-known actors, many of whom are afforded barely a line of dialogue. (Clearly Moran and Giedroyc made full use of their address books.) Alfie Allen offers a nice performance as John Kite, the doomy, gloomy rock star whom Johanna falls head over heels for and there are some neat observations about the male-dominated world of music journalism in the 90s.

The overall result is pleasant enough, but the conviction remains that this would have flown more convincingly with an unknown in the lead role – preferably somebody from the Black Country.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Pin Cushion

28/08/18

Deborah Haywood’s directorial debut, Pin Cushion, is based, she says, on her own experiences of being bullied at school. I can only fervently pray that she has exaggerated what went on, because this is a relentlessly bleak story from start to finish – which is not to say that it isn’t a good film. On the contrary, it’s powerful and deeply affecting. But as I watch, I find myself praying for a token beam of light to break through the overpowering gloom and, frankly, it never appears.

Lyn (Joanna Scanlan) is a single mum with a multitude of problems. Afflicted by a deformed spine and a pronounced limp, she takes her teenage daughter, Iona (Lily Newmark), to a unnamed town, somewhere in darkest Derbyshire. Lyn and Iona are in search of a new start. Things clearly haven’t gone too well for them in their previous home. They are mutually dependent, referring to each other as ‘Dafty 1’ and ‘Dafty 2’ and even sharing a bed. But Iona is reaching the age where she longs for new friends and new experiences.

Unfortunately, once installed in the local school, she falls under the influence of alpha-female, Keely (Sacha Cordy-Nice), who immediately sets about making the new arrival’s life hell on earth. Lyn doesn’t fare any better, treated with open disdain by her neighbours and even told not to return to a ‘friendship group’ she visits. (Actually, this is the point in the film where ¬†things becomes faintly unbelievable – could anyone act as horribly as the people in this film? I’d like to believe they wouldn’t.)

Lily’s aspirational fantasies, delivered in magical realism style, may have been the director’s attempt to soften the horror of the situation, but they don’t help overmuch. Indeed, there’s an overall fairytale quality to this film, but it’s definitely of the Grimm variety – and some viewers may spot more than a passing resemblance to Brian de Palma’s Carrie. There are superb performances from the two leads. Of course, we come to this expecting Scanlon to be good, but this is Newmark’s first film, and she certainly makes the most of it.

Tonight’s screening at the Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh, is followed by a Q & A with Joanna Scanlan, who clearly feels passionate about the themes raised here and answers the audience’s questions frankly and intelligently.

So can I honestly say I enjoy Pin Cushion? No, not really. It impresses me, and makes me think that Haywood is a name to watch out for in the future. But I emerge from the screening feeling decidedly shell-shocked – and though, of course, ¬†that may have been the director’s intention, in the end it doesn’t feel like enough.

4 stars

Philip Caveney