A shimmering indie-pop fantasy that's a pleasant alternative to the typical musical.
God Help the Girl
It’s a scary thing for a first-time director to take on a musical in his first at-bat, but Stuart Murdoch is a seasoned artist with experience in another art form. That art form happens to be music: Murdoch is the frontman of Belle & Sebastian, which obviously gives him a unique advantage in his charming debut, God Help the Girl, an indie-pop fantasy set in his beloved hometown of Glasgow. Murdoch released a concept album of the same name in 2009, and the film version of his passion project is a natural, seamless extension of his initial vision. It’s a bit too restrained on all fronts, but the film’s young leads are wonderful, the songs are catchy and clever (Belle & Sebastian fans will be thrilled), the cinematography is shimmery and sharp, and it’s an all-around pleasurable experience.
But above all else, Murdoch gives indie kids a film that speaks (and sings) to them directly. Our two central characters meet at a rock show in a small club. Watching the show from the crowd is Eve (Emily Browning), an aspiring musician herself who’s just escaped the walls of the mental health center where she’s being treated for anorexia and anxiety. On stage is a nerdy singer-songwriter named James (Olly Alexander), who gets into an on-stage (eventually spilling off-stage) tussle with his drummer because he can’t hear his vocals over the drums. After the show, James finds Eve sulking in a stairwell, and a friendship (and a band!) is born. They soon recruit another musical collaborator by the name of Cass (Hannah Murray), a cheery confidant who’s cute as a button and loves riding bikes. Anyone who came up in the indie club scene will recognize just how truthful a representation of the culture Murdoch’s put on screen.
But the film isn’t grounded in authenticity or reality; this is a musical after all, and the summer of songwriting, random kayak rides, and bowling alley gigs we see our trio share is a more heightened, wondrous version of the culture it represents than an accurate portrait of it. They’re living in an indie dreamworld. If you’ve ever tried to recruit band members by posting fliers around town, you know how unfruitful (albeit classic) a recruiting method it is. (Yes, I’ve done this before and yes, it was pathetic.) Eve, James and Cass have no trouble with this, as they find themselves literally running away from a hungry pack of would-be band members, giant smiles on their faces. Moments like these are genuinely gleeful, warm and fuzzy, adorable, and unstuck from reality.
Cracks eventually do begin to form within the band, because if they didn’t, the already paper-thin plot would be all but shapeless. There are disagreements about band names, debates on the virtues of artistic integrity and commercial appeal, and a weak romantic angle revolving around Eve, but none of the drama is affecting. The story is completely formulaic, but the good news is that Murdoch’s music isn’t; the musical numbers are the film’s strongest asset, with Murdoch’s lyrics conveying the characters’ mindsets nicely. The jaunty, sometimes tender songs are beautifully written and orchestrated, and a few Belle & Sebastian classics are weaved in as well. (The playful “Funny Little Frog” is a welcome inclusion.)
Alexander is sweet and likable, and it’s clear that he can genuinely play the instruments in his hands. (Outside of acting he’s in a band called Years and Years.) James is more than a little archetypal, but Alexander is so good you won’t really care. Murray’s enthusiasm is enchanting, but her singing voice feels a bit withheld and faint. Browning’s voice, on the other hand, is extraordinary, as is her non-singing performance, and her dollish look works well with cinematographer Giles Nuttgens’ vibrant visual style. The intimate moments between Eve and Olly are tender without feeling mushy, like when she crawls in bed with him late at night because she can’t sleep. He gently drapes his arm around her with no motive other than to ease her worries.
If there’s anything to knock about the film’s look, it’s that the camera movement feels too choreographed and rigid. A more free-flowing approach might have reflected the characters’ wild spirits better. Murdoch and Nuttgens make Glasgow look absolutely gorgeous, with the blue-ish gray urban architecture nestled in lush greenery acting as the perfect setting for their modern fairy tale.