by Ken B.
God Help the Girl comes to us from writer/director Stuart Murdoch, better known as the lead man of the Scottish indie pop band Belle and Sebastian. I’ve been a fan of theirs for a little while now, but I can understand an aversion that they face from many, as much of their music can seem overly precious, airy, or simplistic to an audience not ready to hear it (key example). In 2009, Murdoch released an album called God Help the Girl, which featured a slew of female vocalists backed by Belle and Sebastian in a fourteen-song album of slight anecdotal tracks, much like the style the band had become known for. This, of course, served as the genesis for this film. And what you see is what you get – Murdoch isn’t interested in splitting into a new artistic image, but for those who are familiar with the music, this will likely serve as a charming but vaguely forgettable piece, and further serve as fuel for the band’s detractors.
Set in Glasgow, God Help the Girl runs over the course of one summer, following Eve (Emily Browning), a teenage girl who has been sent to a psychiatric clinic to treat a case of anorexia she has been suffering from. She’s quiet, mousy, and musical, and frequently escapes the confines of the building. During one venture, she heads towards a club and hears a live performance from a local, up-and-coming band called Wobbly-Legged Rat, led by a tall, dark, and handsome Swiss singer named Anton (Pierre Boulanger). But it’s the following act, a group featuring an unsuspecting singer called James (Olly Alexander), that catches Eve’s (and the audience’s) attention the most, mainly because halfway through the set, the nebbish-looking James forcefully reprimands his drummer and they begin to (sort of) fight onstage. Eve and James become friends after running into each other after the show, beginning to collaborate, and with Cassie (Hannah Murray), whom James has been teaching guitar to, the three record and perform Eve’s compositions, a somewhat impromptu band with unpredictable chemistry.
One of the things you notice about God Help the Girl is how despite the fact that it is firmly set in the present (indicated by the appearance of smartphones and such), this factor seems to exist almost reluctantly so, considering the emphasis the movie has on cassette tapes, radio hosts, and vinyl. Perhaps it could be argued by the film’s critics that this exemplifies the movie’s hipster-ish tones, but I could never feel any misplaced nostalgia in these elements, in fact, the plot hinges on them – you could even say that this story should be set a few years back to begin with. It adds to the quality of the movie overall – sweet and easy to swallow without trying too hard. The plot itself uses some heavy topics (eating disorders, depression, etc.), but they’re mainly used as a jumping off point for other things. Whether or not this is a good or bad thing is up to you.
The total tolerability of God Help the Girl, however, is rather dependent on the strength of Emily Browning’s performance, and she pulls it off with an addictive watchability. Her take on Eve is that of a flawed but still strong character, with sets of emotion and feeling carefully calculated to each scene. Olly Alexander provides a solid character for Eve to bounce off of in James; that of the sharply opinionated guitarist with precise tastes. And with Cassie, Hannah Murray brings a good showing out of an otherwise underwritten role. Actually, if one word could be lobbed at this movie as representative of most of its faults, “underwritten” would be it – a small set of plot threads revolving over a slightly-too-long running time (112 minutes). The acting helps it along, as do wondrous sequences where songs from the titular album come to life in cheerfully edited and shot music videos, but the claim still stands.
Admittedly, the target audience for a movie like this mainly begins and ends with fans of Belle and Sebastian or similar music, but the film is still made fairly well from more universal aspects – the script contains fascinating characters with varying rapports, the atmosphere is unique and appealing, and the tone remains consistent throughout. Yes, the whole thing comes off as marginally lighter than helium at times, but it’s never done unintentionally – Murdoch knows what he’s trying to do, and what his ideal viewer might want, and you can’t deny it, he pulls it off. While some stray oddities can create limited confusion (such as the origin of Anton’s accent – two musicians in Wobbly-Legged Rat call him Swiss-German, but his accent sounds incredibly French, and while this could be partially explained in Boulanger being a native Parisian, it’s like he doesn’t even try in any of his scenes), Murdoch has still formed an entertaining cinematic debut. He should try this again sometime.