By Simon Miraudo
June 6, 2014
Finally, an answer to the question of what it would look like if a Belle & Sebastian album cover came to life, and under which reasonable circumstances a girl might bathe with a toy tiger, rest her head on a stack of books, or chill coquettishly on a Scottish moor with her two best pals. God Help the Girl marks the directorial (and screenwriting) debut of B&S front-man/Godhead Stuart Murdoch, inspired by his 2009 concept album of the same name. The tale concerns troubled, pretty girls who can act as goofy as Goodies and shy, stuttering boys who will get into slap fights with brutes to protect their honour (or that of their creative endeavours). All the ladies wear short dresses and all the gents can barely see through their hair. The star, Emily Browning, is all bangs and eyes; there couldn’t be a more perfect-looking physical representation of a Belle and/or a Sebastian if Stuart Murdoch Weird Science’d one into existence.
It’s a musical, as you’d expect, and it’s made up of lovely, idiosyncratic pop gems, similarly to be expected. The film around them, however, is so precious you’d think it was based on the novel Push by Sapphire. Thematically and aesthetically, it’s of a piece with Murdoch’s previous efforts. The difference between this and their classic records is that it leaves no lasting imprint on your heart. Though it makes flesh Belle & Sebastian’s famous monochrome photography, the picture’s devotion to recapturing cool visuals comes at the cost of conveying the band’s sharp, too-true observations in the narrative. God Help the Girl now joins Storytelling – for which they penned the lovely, abandoned soundtrack – of movies that were not nearly as good as the B&S score that came with it.
Browning plays Eve, a musical wunderkind and Australian ex-pat who breaks out of a Glaswegian mental health facility – where she’s being treated for anorexia – and moves in with bashful English guitarist James (Olly Alexander). Together with the posh, airy Cassie (Hannah Murray), they form a nameless collective and record Eve’s heart-songs for posterity (and with proper production values), recruiting volunteer guitarists, drummers and back-up singers to help over the course of one crazy summer. But can the vulnerable Eve accept this outpouring of support and love long enough to see her project through? Will Olly ever work up the courage to make their friendship something more? And just how is everyone affording these outfits?
God Help the Girl feels far more affected than Murdoch’s music ever has. His band’s fiercest critics would probably disagree with that last point, but then, I doubt they’ll be making the effort to check out a Belle & Sebastian musical anyway. The obsessives making up the audience (myself included; I have a lot of ‘teen Simon’ feelings tied to a lot of Belle & Sebastian songs) will get a kick out of the inside jokes and seeing this obscure record staged in a fairly elaborate manner. Those looking to the feature for an explanation of the blow-up between exes and former bandmates Murdoch and Isobel Campbell might also like to speculate how James and Eve represent the two of them, respectively. Still, I’d caution fans to heed the title of an early track: ‘Expectations.’ Specifically, lower them. Murdoch’s direction is sprightly but jagged; his script is cute but shapeless. The songs, I’ll reiterate, are delightful. Hopefully he sticks more to that side of things in the future. Shame though. It could have been a brilliant filmmaking career.
God Help the Girl plays the Sydney Film Festival June 14, 2014.