In 2009, Belle and Sebastian bandleader Stuart Murdoch began a musical project called God Help the Girl. With Belle and Sebastian as their backing band, the project focused on writing songs from a young female perspective and featured lead vocals from female singers. After a series of singles, an EP and an eponymous record, the project has stalled. Not content to leave it at that, Murdoch set out to create a companion film, writing and directing it himself in 2012. Now that film has been completed, and this year’s Sundance Festival included the premiere of God Help the Girl, Murdoch’s debut feature length musical exploration of the life of a young girl and an eventful, dreamy summer.
The girl in this case is Eve (Emily Browning), a young Brit in Glasgow with an eating disorder who begins the film in a mental hospital. An avid musician, she sees her life slipping away behind the concrete walls, and sneaks out one day to explore the town, only to arrive at a local rock show. The gig does not go well for James (Olly Alexander), but Eve takes a liking to him and manages to convince him to allow her to stay at his place. Once James discovers Eve’s musical aptitude, they resolve to start a band alongside a young girl named Cassie (Hannah Murray) to whom James was giving music lessons. They spend their summer bonding and writing songs, leading up to landing a gig that will clearly represent the film’s climax. Along the way, Eve must juggle her darker urges, as well as the interests of James and Anton (Pierre Boulanger), a French musician to whom she takes a liking.
God Help the Girl is a musical in the classic sense, with lip syncing and overdubbed vocals and no rhyme or reason to the spontaneous song craft. The approach manages to differentiate it from what could have otherwise easily become a female-led Once, as the story of UK musicians who happen to meet only to resolve to record music together after a very short window of knowing each other can only be done so many times before overlaps begin to emerge. God Help the Girl is more The Sound of Music than Once, and it does not hesitate to make its intentions known. The musical numbers are a mix of enhanced reality musical performances and more straightforward broadway pieces, complete with backup dancers and soaring strings. For the most part, the songs are decent enough, though there is really only one standout among the bunch (the bright and bouncy “I’ll Have a Dance with Cassie”). The lyrics are often a bit too descriptive of the current situation, which is just the sort of music that often should and does receive ridicule among those less enamored with the musical form. It is the sort of music one would expect from the lead singer of Belle and Sebastian, but it always feels like it should be better.
For their parts, both Browning and Alexander have excellent singing voices, and Browning (a native Aussie) adapts to the British accent well. Murray, who is a young actress of immense talent, does a good job of playing Cassie (which is the same name as her character in Skins, who coincidentally had a similar eating disorder to Browning’s character here), but her singing voice never feels natural, and often has a tendency to grate. Her big singing number is the worst part of the film, which is a shame as she is otherwise quite good in her non singing moments. All three of the leads are capable actors and acclimate themselves well to the light and airy atmosphere for which Murdoch is aiming. The only real problem with this is the way it can sometimes trivialize the story, which strays into heavier themes than it can really sustain among the sunny dance numbers. The treatment of Eve’s disorder is particularly problematic, as the film essentially ignores it for much of the middle section of the plot. This is likely by design to perhaps trick the audience into forgetting about it until it inevitably pops up just in time for the third act, but the consequence of this approach cheapens the importance of such a plot point. The slight nature of the musical numbers makes the film noticeably flimsy, and it cannot support its themes as a consequence.
There likely could have been a time and a place for God Help the Girl. It has some decent music, great costuming, good acting and capable directing from a first timer. In practice, though, the tone of the piece is often nauseatingly twee, staged and unreal, and Murdoch’s directing is much better than his writing. The more serious portions of the narrative fail to generate the necessary gravitas, and the happier moments feel overly light and ethereal. There is a middle ground that Murdoch sometimes finds, and it is in these moments that a hint of what God Help the Girl could have been emerges. Unfortunately, these moments are too few and far between, and the film overall cannot be considered much more than a disappointing experiment.