Fans of Belle and Sebastian have been living with the songs from God Help the Girl since 2009, when frontman Stuart Murdoch released a charming, idiosyncratic first draft of its soundtrack featuring a small cadre of guest singers. Now, God Help the Girl is a small, charming, idiosyncratic movie, an indie-pop musical about the torments of late and extended adolescence, as well as the sadly limited length to which music, despite what it promises us, can assay those disappointments. It is a quiet, occasionally subversive tale of subcultural courtship.
And beneath all that, it’s a manically dorky dialectic on British indie music—-in the classic, very narrow sense—-and on pop music in general, in the way we sometimes feel a strummed chord can shake the universe. As the film opens, the voices of two Scottish radio hosts are debating Ian Curtis and the trappings of rock immortality; later, they’ll be talking the Pastels and reminiscing about “that classic indie look.” They’d probably approve of the film’s moddish costume design.
Throughout, James (Olly Alexander), a guitarist and lifeguard with “the constitution of an abandoned rabbit,” will philosophize on pop-group dynamics and the futility of band names and the role of the hitmaker as an instrument of divine will. “A preposterous notion,” innocent Cassie (Hannah Murray), a rich girl who wants to write pop songs, will say about that last thought. And Eve (Emily Browning), God Help the Girl’s troubled heroine, will respond: “But quite a good one.”
As the film starts, Eve is sneaking out of the clinic where she’s being treated for depression and anorexia. “Took the fence then the lane, the bus then the train, bought an Independent to look like I got brains,” she sings while literally doing those things, occasionally resulting in an overly long shot and the feeling that Murdoch, a first-time director, might’ve recorded the song at a fleeter tempo. But when the number (“Act of the Apostle,” originally played by Belle and Sebastian) reaches its horn-tickled second verse, Eve walks through a Glasgow train station’s turnstiles, the shot pulls back, and Murdoch cuts in sweeping footage of Eve dancing alone, chorus-line-style, in a graveyard. And we’re reminded how big a small tale can feel with precisely the right soundtrack.
Eve vaguely falls for Anton (Pierre Boulanger), the hunkish douchebag singer of a hardcore band with the wonderfully ridiculous name Wobbly Legged Rat. She meets James, but not until after he gets in a fight with the drummer of his own band. (Before either throws a punch, they remove their glasses.) After recording a cassette of delicate pop songs, she escapes from the clinic for a second time, moving into the room adjacent to James’ flat. He picks up his guitar; she breaks into a song, teasing out his neuroses and revealing hers. In terms of pacing and plot, it’s abrupt: They’ve basically just met, and already she has him pinned on his sofa, and soon after they’re dancing like it’s a Harold Rosson routine. But we’re in a musical, so you go with it, and soon the film pokes at its own whimsy: “”Do you often sing to people?” James asks. “No, not really,” Eve says. “Just you. Just now.”
Later, a character will remark that in any proper love story, damaged, beautiful Eve and stubborn, sensitive James would end up together, but that’s not where Murdoch is going. The romantic entanglements are important, and so is the band that Eve, James, and Cassie form, but Murdoch’s real interest is the parts of himself that Eve, the self-actualizing artist, and James, the mannered, self-defeating curmudgeon, seem to represent. Along the way there’ll be songs (all wistful and wonderful); flourishes of Andersonian quirk (the clinic has signs that read “Have a break. Have a kumquat.”); more than a whiff of the French New Wave (Murdoch is more Truffaut than Godard); and bits of dialogue that could be Belle and Sebastian song titles (James actually says the words, “I was a young ornithologist”). There’s a stampeding-fans sequence straight out of A Hard Day’s Night, and a tandem bicycle exactly when it’s convenient to the narrative. It doesn’t all work.
But it doesn’t all have to—-or at least the film is handsome and witty and, following a cathartic third act, ultimately touching enough that you forgive it. If it were a Belle and Sebastian album, it’d be Tigermilk. Murdoch recently told Brightest Young Things that he’d like to make a movie in Los Angeles one day. Maybe that one will be his cinematic If You’re Feeling Sinister.
The film opens today at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring.