God help the girl because she needs all the help that she can get. That girl is Eve (Emily Browning), a Glasgow University student who dreams of making it as a pop musician. The emphasis here is “pop” music, a format that her friend and bandmate, James (Olly Alexander)—a frail asthmatic with “the constitution on an abandoned rabbit”—sees as the highest form of musical expression. While discussing truly great pop compositions, James stumbles upon the idea that divinity is either inherent in the singer or is transmitted to them through the song. The third leg of their tripod, the chanteuse, Cassie (Hanna Murray), rolls her eyes a little at James’s pretension, but Eve silently agrees. To make truly great pop music and tackle some very real problems, they are going to need a little help from you-know-who.
God Help the Girl was written and directed by Stuart Murdoch, a man who believes James’s idea whole-heartily. Prior to this new career in movies, Murdoch’s day job has been the frontman of the Scottish pop band Belle & Sebastian, which he co-founded one dreamy Scottish summer in 1996. God Help the Girl is a re-telling of that summer where Murdoch found the strength (and faith) to overcome his Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and bring his dream of becoming a pop musician to fruition.
Murdoch manages to capture this drive and all the youthful energy that accompanies it in a wonderfully shaggy movie full of tangents. There is a semblance of a plot: Eve runs away from a mental institution (she suffers from an eating disorder) and runs into James. Both of them want to start a pop band, and they recruit Cassie, who is taking singing lessons from James. James likes Eve. Eve sort of likes the lead singer of another band, Anton (Pierre Boulanger), but none of that is really the point. The point is the music, which Murdoch perfectly captures in musical vignettes.
Cribbing from the French New Wave, Richard Lester, and Belle & Sebastian’s musical styling (which always seemed to invoke a Godardian nature), Murdoch makes the most of each diversion and musical tangent. Much like Godard’s self-aware, self-deprecating 1961 musical, A Woman is a Woman (Browning’s Eve even seems to be channeling Anna Karina’s Angela), each musical number breaks from the plot and fractures reality entirely. Yet, these moments manage to feel completely natural within the context of the movie.
For God Help the Girl to be a success, all Murdoch had to do was turn to his ability to craft another one of his tragically damaged heroines and run a story around her. Eve is that girl in spades. Even though God Help the Girl deals with eating disorders, self-esteem issues, and forlorn love, it never becomes mired in it. God Help the Girl is about silly kids playing dress-up, love connections made through music, and the infectious nature of pop music. Murdoch loosely bases his debut around the formation of the pop band that made him famous and lets us in on the fun. Like a great Belle & Sebastian song, there is just a touch of bitterness to this sweet confection. It’s just enough to make it sing.
God Help the Girl (2014)
Written & Directed by: Stuart Murdoch
Produced by: Barry Mendel
Starring: Emily Browning, Olly Alexander, Hannah Murray, Pierre Boulanger
Amplify, Not Rated, Running time 111 minutes, Released September 5, 2014