God Help the Girl is like a pop song that is a bit unshapely and a little silly, but you can’t get it out of your head. It is an ode to the wild-eyed dreams of youth, when the impractical and whimsical still seem possible and important. In other words, it’s about starting a band.
As the masterful pop songsmith behind Belle and Sebastian, Stuart Murdoch has always shown a flare for storytelling. His songs are filled with outcasts and rebels eager to take on the world, or at least find a little peace in it. It’s only natural that his filmmaking debut is at once madcap and melancholy. Serving as writer, director and songwriter, Murdoch sometimes seems to fling everything he can think of at the screen, but there’s no faulting his enthusiasm.
The soundtrack (first recorded in 2009 as a concept album with a different cast) features a couple songs from Belle and Sebastian’s 2006 modern classic The Life Pursuit, but most of the material is unique, focusing around the world of Eve (Emily Browning), a mentally fragile young woman who has felt so much from other people’s music and now wants to make her own.
The film takes place over a summer in Glasgow, during which Eve makes a couple friends and gradually starts a band. The narrative doesn’t take on a tidy band-forms-and-takes-over-the-world structure. Indeed, the actual band-related activities come in such fits and starts that it may frustrate or confuse viewers who come in with those expectations. But God Help the Girl is as much about youth and friendship as it is about music. These kids feel as if they have all the time in the world, and if a canoe trip sounds like a better idea than honing a song, so be it.
For a musical to really work, it needs a magnetic star. Browning fits the bill nicely, striking the perfect balance of spontaneity, melancholy, conviction and gumption. It’s hard not to root for her character as she sings personal songs and dances like someone who doesn’t know how to dance but loves to anyway. Browning is also able to tackle the movie’s more sensitive themes of mental illness and suicide with subtle emotions.
Olly Alexander plays James, a sensitive, guitar-strumming, awkward type who befriends Eve and uses what little wisdom he has to guide her through the tricky waters of pop. If Murdoch had any desire to buck the “twee” label, you certainly wouldn’t know it from this skinny, curly-haired, bespectacled geek and his lady friends donning berets and vintage clothing. The lively, outgoing Cassie (Hannah Murray) completes the dynamic trio. All three actors are great fun to watch, whether singing and dancing in their bedroom or playing an impromptu dance-hall number.
Whether Murdoch will make more films or this is a one-off project is anyone’s guess, but there’s certainly room for his technique to grow into his enthusiasm. In the musical numbers—especially the opener, “Acts of the Apostle”—he sometimes resorts to overly literal representations of his lyrics. And he isn’t as judicious as he ought to be when it comes to cutaway gags.
But his energetic spark is fun more often than it’s infuriating. He imbues the film with a sort of nostalgia for the present. Life won’t ever be perfect, but there are a moments of perfection just waiting to be achieved, whether through lyrics and melody or a well-timed embrace. The question is whether we’ll let them happen.
Director: Stuart Murdoch
Writer: Stuart Murdoch
Starring: Emily Browning, Olly Alexander, Hannah Murray
Release Date: Sept. 5, 2014