God Help the Girl
God Help the Girl is like a precocious, forgettable indie band metamorphosed into a precocious, forgettable indie movie musical, so cutesy and so impressed with itself that we almost hate ourselves for experiencing moments of weakness during which we like it. Because, in essence, it is a likable film — a twee toe-tapper of a movie that does more good than it does harm. But it’s too long, too facile, and too unsure of its tone to really stick with us. It might have worked better had it been thirty minutes shorter, had it avoided quasi-tragic storyline, and had it been directed and written by a veteran filmmaker and not a musician looking for a different way to express himself.
The man behind God Help the Girl, of course, is Stuart Murdoch, a musical legend famous for his influential work with Belle & Sebastian, a beloved pop-rock band whose songs have the classic ability to draw even the most jaded of a listener in. I’m only vaguely familiar with their music — I’ve listened to a couple of their tunes once or twice, never to go overboard in my zeal — but I’m appreciative and aware of Murdoch’s skill. To write and compose infectious musical work is a gift only a few are given, and Murdoch does much with it. Belle & Sebastian’s long-lasting popularity is not just a result of luck.
That being said, Murdoch is not as apt of a filmmaker as he is a songwriter. Though God Help the Girl has a certain sort of bright spark reminiscent of Godard’s most joyous 1960s works — it has a way with unforced cool and is cast terrifically — you can feel inexperience dripping from its celluloid skin. The plot never quite cohesively comes together (are we watching an optimistic musical or a poignant teenage romantic drama?). The staging is sometimes contrived. The dialogue leans on the more stilted side of things. And yet I find it hard to completely write it off, as its soundtrack is sprightly and its performances are convincing even when the film isn’t. God Help the Girl is messy and imperfect and self-conscious. But it has its moments of inspiration, and they count.
The film concerns Eve (Emily Browning), a teen recovering from anorexia who dreams of one day becoming a major pop artist. Intrigued by the music scene of Glasgow’s West End, she eventually becomes acquainted with James (Olly Alexander), a promising songwriter, and his friend Cassie (Hannah Murray), a burgeoning singer with a honeysuckle voice. A short while later and they’re friends sharing a seemingly unbreakable bond, soon deciding that their individual musical talents could be best put to use in the form of a band. The prospects are good — everyone involved has more than just a little charisma — but problematic (and forever creeping around) is Eve’s past.
God Help the Girl has a hard time recovering from that aforementioned plot line. It would have worked charmingly had it directly been a movie about teenagers aspiring to be the “next big thing” in the music industry. But because it’s sidelined with an extremely serious subplot, it never quite reaches the euphoric levels it could; Murdoch has all the right moves in mind, but isn’t quite adept enough of a filmmaker to pull off portraying a grave subject matter while making everything else gleefully French New Wave in texture.
But the cast is believable enough to ensure that his shortcomings aren’t too apparent: Browning, in particular, gives an exceptional performance as a struggling talent who also happens to possess a remarkable voice. So God Help the Girl isn’t entirely a success. But with a great soundtrack by its side, it’s a movie musical that has plenty of loveliness to pass around. I can dig it — to a point. B-