Sweden's Lukas Moodysson and Scotland's Stuart Murdoch – of Belle and Sebastian fame – both follow young musicians in their latest movies.
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13 Jun 2014 - 11:44 AM  UPDATED 16 Jun 2014 - 2:31 PM

This has emerged as the year for European films about youngsters forming pop or rock trios, so if you are a member of a Spanish or Serbian threesome and lack a record deal, I’d advise jumping aboard the bandwagon before it’s all over.

There have been no less than three titles in this year’s festival conforming to this description, two of them screening over the last few days. This latter pair, God Help the Girl and We are the Best!, shared some obvious qualities yet were different in style and each worth seeing. (They were also far stronger than Jimi:All By My Side, a film I reviewed earlier in this blog outlining the formation of one of rock’s most celebrated trios, the Jimi Hendrix Experience.)

God Help the Girl marks the writing-directing debut of Stuart Murdoch from Scottish musical duo Belle and Sebastian and it’s marvelous in almost every respect. His combo’s music had passed me by – the words ‘fey’ and ‘twee’ always cropping up in reviews had a lot to do with that – but while I’ve no idea whether those epithets were deserved, God Help The Girl is not fey, but instead light and insouciant, a subtle but major difference.

Seen temporarily absconding from a Glasgow psychiatric institution in the opening sequence is Eve (Emily Browning), who heads for a gig and afterwards meets James (Olly Alexander), who despite looking a complete wimp, has just punched out his drummer on-stage. This makes him the perfect combination of feminine and masculine attributes. (Mostly feminine, though.) James introduces Eve to his blonde waif of a musical pal, Cass (Hannah Murray, like Alexander a refugee from teleseries Skins) and soon they’re setting out to conquer the world. But how? And when will Eve and James form a couple?

The film is peppered with cultural nods and observations about film and pop, from Buñuel to The Beatles and David Bowie, references that could have been irritatingly self-conscious but feel authentic and sincere because they’ve been written by someone who has clearly thought deeply about them.

Admittedly, the film takes place in a middle-class, Anglofied fantasy version of Glasgow where people speak in neutral or Pommy accents (or Australian in Browning’s case – she’s given a back story as explanation). There’s one brief altercation with working class youths speaking in heavy Glaswegian brogues, which seems inserted in an attempt at defusing criticism.

Doubtless this will annoy some Scots, but it didn’t bother me, partly because I was born south of the border, but also because the film exists in an alternative indie-pop-musical universe, the type where people occasionally burst into a song and dance sequence despite being down the local gym at the time. I was constantly reminded more of Scotland’s Bill Forsyth (Gregory’s Girl) and France’s Francois Truffaut than of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, though. And that’s not a problem. Neither exactly a problem is Browning. If the Academy gave Oscars for understated performances, she’d be a shoe-in.

We are the Best! marks the return to filmmaking of Sweden’s Lukas Moodysson, following some very dark films such as Lilya 4-ever and A Hole In My Heart, and a relatively optimistic return at that. Young teenage tomboy schoolgirls, Bobo and Klara, are outsiders due to their boyish looks and lefty political views, and are motivated to form a punk band more from the desire to be loudly bolshie than for any musical reasons – neither can play an instrument. Soon they are joined by daggy Christian Hedvig, whose chief attraction is that she plays guitar (classical style, but that can always be changed, as can her hairstyle).

The film could have done with a bit more plot development and dramatic conflict –and times it’s so lightweight it almost drifts away. But it’s likably generous towards its characters and humorously observant about the rituals and self-deceptions of youth.

Screening in the official competition, Two Days, One Night, from Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, has its fans (see the full-length SBS review) but I found it a severe disappointment, mainly because its dramatic scenario is so schematic, both in concept and handling, and the script is so plodding, predictable and repetitive. Marion Cotillard (the best thing about it by far) plays a worker in a small factory laid off because her colleagues have voted to give themselves a bonus in place of saving her job. The political points about divide-and-rule are never less than obvious and the film heads exactly where you think it’s headed. For a drama set against trade union and employer-worker politics, I’d place Ken Loach’s The Navigators, Robert Guediguian’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro, and most of all, Laurent Cantet’s Human Resources, before this, despite its assured direction and Cotillard’s splendid performance.

Before I wrap up, I’d like to join the widespread applause for Australian filmmaker Sophia Turkiewicz’s documentary, Once My Mother. The film unfolds the extraordinary life story of the director’s late mother, from a peasant living peacefully in the Polish boondocks to a war orphan shunted thousands of kilometers across the Soviet Union to a numbing succession of prison camps, often on foot, before heading post-WWII to an African refugee camp and finally settling in Adelaide. It’s a moving and fascinating film that works as both intimate personal story about a strained daughter-mother relationship and as vivid personalisation of Europe’s terrible mid-20th century history.

Lynden Barber is a former Artistic Director of the Sydney Film Festival.