God Help The Girl review

Belle & Sebastian musician Stuart Murdoch turns writer and director in the musical drama God Help The Girl. Here's Caroline's review...

God Help The Girl exists because of Belle & Sebastian. The band behind the soundtrack, the writing and the direction (by Stuart Murdoch) infuse every frame with their ethereal folksy charm to the point where it’s impossible to separate the two. This isn’t a film that stands on its own – it is Belle & Sebastian: The Movie – and whether or not your find enjoyment in that depends on both your taste in music and your affinity with the film’s themes and subject matter.

It’s a movie about young people, with all of their self-interest, entitlement and precociousness, but it is also, underneath the predictably twee trappings, a dark dramedy about broken young people. Most of us have been broken young people at some point in our lives, such is the nature of that period of life, and the three central characters – Eve (Emily Browning), Cassie (Hannah Murray) and James (Olly Alexander) – provide three distinctly different examples of that experience for the audiences to latch onto.

Eve, our heroine, begins the film in hospital recovering from anorexia and other mental health issues, and spends the rest of the film dealing with those ongoing problems under the guise of starting a band with new friends Cassie and James. The three kindred spirits spend the running time musing about life, art and their place in the world, talking in that frustratingly existential way university students find themselves doing at 3am on a Wednesday night.

The trouble is, nobody outside of the conversation generally wants to listen, and thus the film’s central flaw emerges. There are moments when God Help The Girl hits on something true, some pure expression of emotion that breaks through the film’s dream-like preciousness, and those moments are wonderful. It treats the matter of mental illness with respect and sensitivity, for one. But those moments are also rare, and aren’t necessarily what you’ll remember afterwards. The rest is a lot of talk without really saying anything.

The extended musical sequences only exacerbate the problem, and existing haters of Belle & Sebastian’s work should steer clear. The overbearing whimsy of the soundtrack paired with the grimness of Eve’s story rarely do anything but detract from the movie’s emotional through-line, but worse is the detachment of the songs from the matter at hand. It too often feels like the music is steering the plot rather than the other way around, and sometimes taking mad detours, which threatens to dilute the film’s impact.

Despite these reservations, the film should at least be applauded for trying to do something different. We’re at a point in popular culture when teen musicals have rapidly exited the zeitgeist and resumed their status as very un-cool niche things that nobody wants to watch, but God Help The Girl thankfully isn’t trying to be Glee. You don’t see many indie musical teen dramas, perhaps for good reason, but it’s admirable to see someone try to make the sub-genre work in a totally different way.

Disregarding the soundtrack (which, as said, is almost impossible) the movie itself is more concerned with Eve’s journey through music and friendship than it is about the band itself. It seems that this is what the film really wants to be – an honest look at how music, creativity and genuine friendship can help to jump-start a life marred by physical and emotional problems – but it sadly only gets about half-way there. That half boasts a great performance from Browning, but it’s a bit stop-and-start.

This is a movie that’s admirably raw and unpolished, but there’s too little holding it together and much of the poignancy it seems to be striving for sadly gets lost along the way. God Help The Girl feels like a soundtrack with a movie attached in what too often feels like an afterthought and, as glorious as some moments are, they’re too easily eclipsed by the rest of the film’s shallow vagueness.

God Help The Girl is out in UK cinemas on the 22nd August.

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