God Help the Girl
Directed by Stuart Murdoch
Eve is a catastrophe—low on self-esteem but high on fantasy, especially when it comes to music. Over the course of one Glasgow summer, she meets two similarly rootless souls: posh Cass and fastidious James, and together they form a group.
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★★★★ review by davidehrlich on Letterboxd
like THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT remade as a twee Glaswegian John Hughes movie. it'll be *too* twee for some people, but thank god i'm not one of them. i loved every shaggy second of this plotless, ramshackle pop musical (it helps that i'm rather fond of the actual music).
and Emily Browning... dream waif. somewhat uncomfortable that this unexpected but admirably blunt anorexia story features so many incredible costumes that just *beg* viewers to slim into them.
★★★★ review by Aaron on Letterboxd
Part of March Around the World 2017
“Do you have any idea what he’s talking about?” “No, but he sounds quite sad.”
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is that I adore Belle & Sebastian. The adoration is, I think, fully warranted—few songwriters are better than Stuart Murdoch at writing cinematically, transforming the quotidian into something sweeping and affecting. And with their late-1960s Britpop/French yé-yé sound, few bands are as skilled at capturing a certain combination of romantic melancholy, a sort of bittersweet, wry take on life’s inevitable hopes and their equally inevitable dashing. I am aware, however, that the adoration is not ubiquitous. For every neurotic soul who finds Belle & Sebastian to be a sonic representation of their innermost thoughts and feelings, there is another soul ready to decry them as twee and affected and navel-gazing.
This is in part because Belle & Sebastian use the foibles and insecurities of adolescence/young adulthood as a gateway for exploring universal concerns—love and loss, uncertainty about the future, depression, sexual hangups, the curious perfidy and solace of organized religion—with wit, depth, and no small amount of critique of the immature response thereto (a response by no means limited to the adolescents/young adults among us). In that sense, their music is a bit like The Catcher in the Rye, a book that is easy to scorn as a teenager’s shallow perspective on life (in part because of the irritating faux-mystique its author crafted by hiding himself away from the world, as though so many of us wouldn’t love to withdraw from society and have it deemed praiseworthy and alluring) or easy to celebrate as a deconstruction and commentary on that perspective and the world that created it.
I have neither particular fondness nor particular antipathy for The Catcher in the Rye—I read it in college, too late for its paragon of alienation to strike his fullest chord, but I appreciate Salinger’s skill and the novel’s place in the literary canon and the culture. As with so much art (great or otherwise), timing is everything—experience something one moment and you might appreciate it or enjoy it well enough; experience it at just the right moment and...your heart opens up to the happiest of accidents: love. And just as it is impossible for me to objectively regard a film like The Wizard of Oz, so deeply has it seeped into my marrow from a young age, it is impossible for me to be anything other than delighted by Belle & Sebastian’s music.
To some degree, this is a matter of overlapping interests. The band took its name from a late-1960s French television adaptation of the novel Belle et Sébastien and has evinced its fondness for 1960s French culture throughout its existence—a fondness that Wes Anderson (the visual equivalent of a Belle & Sebastian album) and I share. The era also informs Belle & Sebastian’s music, with many songs sounding as though they escaped from a forgotten 1967 LP (occasionally commingled with a touch of Bee Gees or Thin Lizzy) only to be rescued by Scottish troubadours (cf. Camera Obscura; Aberfeldy). I adore a well-turned phrase, of which there are few finer purveyors than Murdoch. And I love art that can manage to combine both the emotional and the narrative, that can summon a mood of romantic melancholy, that acknowledges the commingled happiness and sadness and absurdity of life. But mostly, Belle & Sebastian were at the right place at the right time. It was love.
I’ve noted before my unorthodox upbringing, which included, among other things, a media diet both rapacious—I consumed far more movies and television programs than probably was advisable—and highly restricted. Musically, this meant two basic categories were permissible: Contemporary Christian Music (hi there, Amy Grant!) and Oldies (or the subset thereof that my mother approved of; my father does not and has never much cared for music beyond the odd hymn). So it is that, while my cohort will have no problem performing a synchronized rendition of Boyz II Men or Spice Girls, I am left a variously bemused, embarrassed, and relieved bystander.
Once college arrived and I began to explore on my own, a world of possibilities opened up to me. Some of these, such as movies featuring nudity and cursing, were not always high-minded. (So eager to make up for lost time was I that I would consume anything with a hint of the risqué, which is how I became well acquainted with Ewan McGregor’s penis.) Musically, most of the Top 40 did not appeal to me, but as I dug around here and there, plenty of things did. And nothing appealed to me more than this little band from Glasgow. It is hard to express how profoundly lyrics like “The wider issues of the day just pass you by, you’re gonna pay for looking at the floor when people talk to you” meant to me. It felt as though Murdoch was speaking both to and about me, with a like-minded humor and affinity for odd words and paralyzing social anxiety. I consumed every bit of Belle & Sebastian-related content I could, immersing myself in their Glaswegian goodness.
All of which is a long (so very long) way of saying that God Help the Girl is a film I, personally, was destined to adore despite its problems, of which there are plenty. Murdoch’s screenwriting and directorial debut recasts the Belle & Sebastian origin story as a summer of friendship and band formation and almost-love among three people: Eve (Emily Browning), James (Olly Alexander), and Cassie (Hannah Murray). Murdoch has described Eve and James as capturing roughly equal parts of his younger self, seen in James’ musical obsessions—that the great pop song is divinely inspired; that authenticity is so important it can dampen enthusiasm for greats like The Beatles and David Bowie—and in Eve’s struggles with anorexia and clinical depression (Murdoch struggled with depression and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome as a youth). Eve, as the title suggests, takes center stage, filling the “natural converter of ordinary inputs into extraordinary musical expressions” role that Murdoch fills in Belle & Sebastian. God Help the Girl works alternately as a coming-of-age story, a teenage tale of first love, a “let’s put on a show” romp, and more. It doesn’t always work as all of these things at once—the difficulty of synthesizing Murdoch’s many interests into a coherent film proves more than God Help the Girl can sometimes manage. But even when the whole falters, the parts work so magically that it is difficult to much care.
Unsurprisingly, God Help the Girl is at its best in its musical vignettes. The film wisely opens with Eve singing “Act of the Apostle” directly to the camera as she escapes from what we learn to be a mental hospital and makes her way by bus and train to the city for a frolic. This opening number sets the tone both in terms of character—Eve is the hyper-literate, mildly rebellious sort—and in terms of God Help the Girl being a true musical in which songs spontaneously erupt fully formed. From there, Murdoch rotates through a set of songs both deliciously catchy—try your best not to shimmy to the left while listening to “I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie”—and grounded in the story—“Pretty Eve in the Tub” captures James’ pining for his new friend, more lyrically gifted than he could ever hope to be, while “Come Monday Night” deepens the newly expanded band’s sound with an exploration of the day-to-day’s creeping boredom and the futility of avoidance, whether through procrastination or distraction, even though all of the principles are putting off adulthood and responsibility through their own musical pastimes.
Like so many first-time filmmakers, Murdoch stuffs every allusion and inspiration he can into God Help the Girl, which threatens exhaustion but ends up winsome and charming. Eve’s look recalls nothing so much as Anna Karina—Browning’s wide eyes, sculpted cheekbones, and brunette bob are uncannily like Godard’s muse—which in turn yields homages to French New Wave touchstones like A Woman Is a Woman and Band of Outsiders (the latter cutely stolen from as the trio dance and snap their fingers in Cassie’s parlor). As Eve, James, and Cassie post flyers to expand their band into full-fledged popdom, they run from an increasingly large horde of would-be fans and hangers-on in the style of Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (though only God Help the Girl’s gaggle of chasers includes a faux-Maria von Trapp). Eve reads Anna Karenina and listens to The Left Banke. “I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie” turns a seniors’ community center dance into a forgotten Grease number complete with pomaded pompadours and poodle skirts. And the social concerns playing through Eve’s mental health difficulties echo the British kitchen sink dramas of the 1960s, like A Taste of Honey and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (the latter of which is nodded to in another Belle & Sebastian song in which, fittingly, the jogger only runs into the dreaded middle distance). It is excessive, but only in the sense that Christmas dinner or the Kill Bill films are excessive, which is to say, in the best possible way.
Though Murdoch’s ear for distinctive descriptions of the everyday extends to his characters—“I’ve got the constitution of an abandoned rabbit” could, and perhaps should, be on my business card—developing full-fledged characters outside the confines of a three-minute pop confection proves more difficult. On a moment-to-moment basis God Help the Girl mostly shines, but it often plays as a series of vignettes with some of the connective tissue missing. Eve’s maladies are drawn from Murdoch’s experiences and are not treated shabbily or dismissively, but there is an uneasy balance between the film’s lighthearted goofs and the life-threatening conditions hovering in the background. Browning does an excellent job imbuing Eve with a mercurial artist’s temperament, and there is certainly the sense that music offers Eve a release from the demons troubling her, but the viewer has to connect perhaps more dots than she should. Cassie, the least fully formed of the trio, is essentially the “posh girl,” the flibbertigibbet who comes from money and his happy to dabble in whatever shiny distraction passes by, but who hasn’t much of an internal life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, James is the most developed of the three, starting off as an endearingly awkward music geek who, with exposure, reveals himself to be somewhat rigid and obnoxious. Alexander nails both James’ sweet dorkiness—the way he nearly falls down when Eve accepts his invitation to his flat is adorable—and his over-developed sense of righteousness when it comes to what constitutes good music, good band nomenclature, and (most off-puttingly) good romantic choices on Eve’s part.
Which points to the most damning criticism of God Help the Girl. While some have criticized Murdoch’s film for being insufficiently serious about Eve’s nervous conditions, for being overly twee, for being unsatisfactory as a portrait of the mechanics of the songwriting process, these gripes seem misplaced. Though Eve’s anorexia and depression may not be as well-integrated as possible, there is no sense that Murdoch is being flippant about them—rather, he sees in music a path toward salvation from a possible dark end much like the one he experienced himself. And to criticize God Help the Girl for portraying songwriting as a spark of mad genius that yields fully formed musical numbers performed as though by shared consciousness, rather than as the laborious set of fits and starts it no doubt really is, is to criticize the musical genre as a whole. As for tweeness, it is true that both Belle & Sebastian and God Help the Girl could be said to embody the concept, but it is just as true that “twee” as a label has become nearly useless—like “predictable” or “campy,” it tends to be applied to whatever the speaker dislikes with little regard for form or content. In any event, as with Oz’s witches, there is good twee (Moonrise Kingdom, Frances Ha) and bad twee (the opening scenes of Juno, Elizabethtown)—what matters is less what one is and more how one is what one chooses to be.
And that is where God Help the Girl most falters. Though styled as, and for the most part sincerely trying to be, the story of a gifted young woman and her attempts to find herself, Murdoch cannot escape the fact that the character he knows best is not Eve but James. Murdoch winds up the film with a bit of voiceover that, frustratingly, shifts what has been Eve’s story to James’—so much so that when Eve interrupts the voiceover, James shuts her down, essentially telling her she’s had her turn and now it’s his time to talk. “The greatness of this summer came from somewhere else,” he says. “Just for a moment, we were all in the right place and the possibilities were infinite.” It is a charming sentiment, and we thankfully do not close on an image of the lovelorn James staring at a departing train but with Eve on the train and the bus, hopefully headed to bigger and better things. The hopeful wistfulness of the ending, with the players parting ways after what they all knew on some level was only a temporary sojourn, is perfectly fitted to Murdoch’s temperament. But the shift in focus to James is discomfiting, as though the most important lessons learned were not by an active female participant but by a male onlooker.
Yet it’s hard to get too upset about a momentary misstep in an otherwise charming film. There is no malice in Murdoch or in God Help the Girl, only a desire to luxuriate in a deceptively playful tune, to escape the day’s troubles through song, to—as the film’s most joyous number reminds us—keep on dancing. It is a reminder that music, like all art, is a way to connect, to open up and to access feelings that might otherwise remain buried or too painful to discuss. It is a way to give of oneself with startling generosity. The juvenile in us tends to be careful about telling anybody anything—if you do, you start missing everybody. I’m so grateful that Murdoch grew up.
★★★½ review by Edward on Letterboxd
Emily Browning is an angel and this should have been gay.
★★★½ review by Vadim Rizov on Letterboxd
Wrote about this over here, along with a Stuart Murdoch interview. Entirely possible I like this way too much for stupid personal factors — all the band chat was straight high school fare, I like the songs, everyone looks "alluring" to say the least — but every day I have to wake up and read about how Michael Mann is a flawless Jesus, so I'm not feeling too apologetic (though I'd probably caution you against watching this anyway). Few scenes this year are destined to make me happier than the "I'll Have to Dance with Cassie" number, messenger dog and all.
★★★½ review by Raul Marques on Letterboxd
Pointless, but good. The film is basically a hipster's wet dream. With sweet melancholic pretentiously-honest indie songs, an old-fashion look and reasonably interesting characters the movie is intentionally irresistibly charming. Like Belle & Sebastian though, there's not much meaningful feeling behind all the charm.
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