About ten years ago, Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch wrote a couple songs that he didn’t feel were quite right for the band. He continued writing the songs as if they were for a fictional trio made up of two female singers and one male. These songs became God Help The Girl, an album he recorded and released about five years ago. Now the album has a film to go along with it as Murdoch has completed this somewhat backwards process with his directorial debut, telling a loose story based around the songs.
Emily Browning plays Eve, an Australian who finds herself clinically depressed and suffering from anorexia after a relationship that brought her to Scotland ended poorly. It’s unclear how voluntary her stay at the hospital is, but she’s able to escape for a night of live music in Glasgow, where she meets James (Olly Alexander), band member number two. James is so impressed by Eve’s songwriting that he insists they begin a band together and recruits Cassie (Hanna Murray), a young privileged girl he teaches guitar to. Despite some tangled affections, there is not much more to the story than this. The plot is merely a loose framework to hang the songs on.
As a musical, God Help The Girl is somewhere between Grease and Once. While most of the songs are performed within a diagetic context that would make sense in the real world (i.e. a band rehearsing), the songs come to the band fully formed, unlike Once, which shows the process of the duo’s collaboration. The ‘serious’ issues like Eve’s eating disorder hold about as much weight as Rizzo’s pregnancy when placed between these sugary songs. These dramatic elements were a late addition to the script once Murdoch realized that there weren’t enough stakes in a film that’s just about a band coming together. It certainly shows.
The songs are nice to listen to, the actors and set pieces are nice to look at, so my senses have no complaints, but it would have been nice if the film had more of a sense of character and/or story. Cassie in particular feels under developed and seems to just be along for the ride. James gets a bit more to say and do and spends most of the film in awe of Eve.
Much of the film’s style comes via the wardrobe department. Everyone, regardless of their status, seems to have a smart fashion sense that amalgamates looks and styles of the last half century. This is particularly impressive for Eve, since she ran away from the hospital with only the football uniform she was wearing. The U.K. hipness will no doubt appeal to North American teens, which I’m sure producer Barry Mendel (frequent Wes Anderson collaborator) was banking on when he adopted the project in its early stages.
God Help The Girl is ultimately a teen fantasy about spending a summer doing little else other than having fun with new friends, making music, letting boys pine over you, and finding yourself. It’s a carefree film that tries to make you care a little too much when it probably would have done better to turn up the comedic elements rather than the dramatic. Then again, any story with more meat on it would have served it better, regardless of tone.