God Help the Girl: Sundance Review
Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian makes his debut as writer-director with this musical about three post-adolescent friends adrift in a Glasgow summer.
Is Scotland becoming the world’s leading producer of twee movie musicals? On the heels of Sunshine on Leith, an Edinburgh-set jukebox journey through the Proclaimers’ song catalog, comes the Glasgow response, God Help the Girl, written and directed by Stuart Murdoch. As frontman of indie chamber pop outfit Belle & Sebastian, Murdoch has proven himself an inspired storyteller, spinning captivating three- or four-minute narratives about misunderstood geniuses, lovelorn outsiders and sickly kids who weren’t good at sports. But the wistful pleasures are stretched awfully thin at almost two hours in a film that blurs the line separating self-irony from tiresome self-consciousness.
The project began as an album of thematically linked material, released in 2009 and featuring various female vocalists. What’s most disappointing about the strained film Murdoch has coaxed from that source is how musically uninteresting it is. B&S detractors tend unfairly to dismiss their work as featherweight whimsy. But the band’s best albums – If You’re Feeling Sinister, The Life Pursuit, Dear Catastrophe Waitress – are brilliant, robust collections of catchy tunes, ornate arrangements and witty lyrics that plant their feet in the ’60s while referencing multiple decades of British, French and American pop and folk.
Perhaps because Murdoch’s songs are so inherently cinematic on their own terms, they resist literal translation to the screen. One of the least memorable B&S albums was Storytelling, which was written for, but mostly unused in, the 2001 Todd Solondz movie of the same name. Unlike that venture, God Help the Girl didn’t involve the minefield of collaboration with another artist, and yet, with few exceptions, the songs feel tacked-on and weightless rather than a driving force in the plot.
Not that the word plot really applies. The central figure is Eve (Emily Browning), an Australian frustrated songwriter far from home, hospitalized for depression and an eating disorder in what must be the world’s most unsupervised mental-health facility. Slipping out one night, she catches the eye of Anton (Pierre Boulanger), a sexy Swiss-German rocker performing at a local club. But it’s James (Olly Alexander), the humiliated English guitarist and singer of the failed act that follows, who ends up taking care of her. (One of Murdoch’s funniest sight gags has James and his bandmate removing their geek glasses before an onstage slapping match.)
Eve moves out of the hospital and into a spare room in James’ flat, pretending not to notice his gigantic crush on her. Instead, she keeps counting on narcissistic Anton to pass on her song demo to a pair of radio hosts known for launching new talent. In the meantime, Eve tags along to meet James’ rich music student, Cassie (Hannah Murray), another transplanted Brit, who completes the trio. Out of nowhere, their summer-long amble (a kind of desexed Jules and Jim) becomes a let’s-form-a-band movie.
The three leads all have distinct charms and their own appealing way with a song, but as a musical coming-of-age story their journey lacks definition. Lots of time is spent with them kayaking along the River Clyde or skipping around parks and other pretty locations, wearing retro fashion and striking cute poses while they talk about how they want their music to sound. (This is not the Glasgow of head-butting beer brawlers, needless to say.) But it feels like almost an entire film made up of airy filler in the absence of character development, tangible conflict, emotional insight or anything but the softest of resolutions.
Maybe these three are playing at being in a band because they don't yet know what to do with their lives. But if that's Murdoch's point, it's an unsatisfying one.
Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens’ camera is justifiably in love with Browning’s face, framed in a chic bob, though for a girl with depression issues she sure seems easygoing. The character who reveals the most interesting inner life is Alexander’s James, perhaps the closest thing to a stand-in for Murdoch. In many ways it’s a thankless role, bolstering Eve and getting little in return. But Alexander brings humor and a nice touch of nerdy resilience to the character. “I’ve got the constitution of an abandoned rabbit,” James says at one point. However, it seems reasonable to believe this guy has a shot at his dream of planting “a small flag in the musical timeline.”
While it’s insubstantial and way overlong, the film’s bright, cheerful look is easy on the eyes. And a couple of songs are quite effective at reinforcing the warm connections among the characters, notably “I’ll Have to Dance With Cassie” and the lovely “Down and Dusky Blonde.” But hearing Murdoch sing “Dress Up in You” over the end credits just made me want to go listen to a Belle & Sebastian album without the impediment of this cloying movie.
Production: Zephyr Films, Singer Films, in association with Creative Scotland, HanWay Films, British Film Co., Savalas Film
Director-screenwriter: Stuart Murdoch
Producer: Barry Mendel
Executive producers: John Williamson, Chris Curling, Phil Robertson
Director of photography: Giles Nuttgens
Production designer: Mark Leese
Costume designer: Denise Coombes
Editor: David Arthur
Music: Stuart Murdoch
Sales: HanWay Films
No rating, 111 minutes