Eve (Emily Browning) is a young Glasweigan girl who ends up in hospital with phychological problems. With nothing else to do, Eve starts penning some songs as a way of coping with her problems. After she is discharged Eve makes her way to London where she meets fellow musicians, James (Olly Alexander) and Cass (Hannah Murray). Together they form a band.

 

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An adorable mess of a musical.

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: In God Help The Girl, a dramedy musical written and directed by Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch, Emily Browning plays Eve, an Aussie ex-pat and would-be songstress stranded in a Glasgow summer in search of a band and looking for a soft place to land. We find her, as the movie opens, in a psych clinic where she is laying low for depression and an eating disorder. I have to confess I’ve never had cause to eyeball firsthand a comfy dorm of a girls’ posh private school. But I’m guessing it might look something like what this movie imagines a hospital for the emotionally/mentally sick to be. As for twenty-something Eve, she has the dazed air of a teen model; a picture of adolescent health, svelte, buoyant, sporting a gorgeously retro brunette bob, and rather well tempered for a lass suffering from a bad case of black dog.

Eve escapes into the night via a carelessly unguarded window not long after the main titles have evaporated singing, “I’m bored out of my mind, too sick to even care,” as she does. Browning’s voice is not a spectacular instrument, but it has a charm that dusts and strokes the lyrics here with just the right amount of sweet earnestness. The moment she is free, Eve commits herself to the hipster’s antidote for ennui: a gig at Glasgow’s Barrowland Ballroom.

It’s here she meets guitarist James (Olly Alexander), the film’s articulate nerd-hero, and his opposite number, a suave and prettier than thou German-Belgian singer, Anton (Pierre Boulanger). This set-up is not unlike one of Murdoch’s tunes (not surprising in the circumstances): besotted love mixed with envy, erudition vs. sex appeal, and unrequited pining passion met with a bewildered and helplessly chaste little cuddle of respect.

But lest one imagines this to be a pop-tuned Scot’s version of a John Hughes movie, Murdoch either hasn’t the chops or the inclination for tight plotting, characterisation or a meditation on the divides wrought by class, gender clichés or social peer pressure. Instead, God Help the Girl is about how James and Eve form a band. They recruit a third member Cassie (Hannah Murray), a protégé of the musically precocious James. He has a fondness for pontificating at inordinate length in defense of a pop music that sounds a lot like Murdoch’s home brand: “No one ever cried over a Bowie song,” he asserts at one point, a line that’s hard to argue with until one considers that perhaps the once-Massacred One may well have thought such an outcome as something of an embarrassment.

Belle and Sebastian have the power to enrapture or enrage. God Help The Girl, I suspect, may give rise to the same urges. Depending, of course, on one’s natural disposition. Detractors of Murdoch and co. like to call them precious, dainty, cute or ‘twee as fuck’. Belle and Sebastian’s music seems a rejoinder to such brutal swagger. Check out these lyrics from my own favourite B&S song: ‘Another rainy day, we're trapped inside with a train set/Chocolate on the boil, steamy windows when we met/You've got the attic window looking out on the cathedral/And on a Sunday evening bells ring out in the dusk.’

There’s nothing as clever, beautiful or smart in God Help the Girl as ‘Another Sunny Day’ is as a pop song, so take that as both warning and caution. What is here is a weird finger painting of a musical. Shot on 16mm on what I imagine is a modest budget (it was funded via crowd-sourcing), it has a make-do, point and shoot you-are-there quasi-doco aesthetic that redefines ‘loose’. I was struck by how much of it looked like rehearsal footage; rough plans for something if not ‘bigger’, but at least slicker, tighter, more fully imagined. Murdoch and his choreographer Emily-Jane Boyle stage the musical sequences in bedrooms, lounges and streets; it’s like Umbrellas of Cherbourg on the Clyde without any surreal poetry. It’s all so artless and indie music video – soccer matches and boating on the river – halfway through I suspected Murdoch was taking the piss. When legions of would-be pop stars pursue our trio of heroes through the streets in answer to a musician’s wanted ad like some thing out of The Sound of Music, I was satisfied I wasn’t too far off the mark. The dramatic scenes – thwarted romance, lover merry-go-round and dreamy ambition – are like the dead air between album tracks. The tone is deadpan self-seriousness. It bounces alive anytime anyone sings and happily that’s often. (The actors acquit themselves well to the challenge of keeping insufferability at bay while retaining a certain mysterious charisma afloat.)

This, then, isn’t so much coherent storytelling within the conventions of the musical, but a series of set-pieces built around nice, good pop tunes that celebrate Murdoch and co.’s nerd-cool chic. The music is a delicious mix of folk, hooky ‘60s styled femme French pop, and ‘80s shoe-gazing introspection a la The Smiths… all resplendent with arrangements that twist through a widescreen of possibilities. Not surprisingly, a lot of the dialogue has the jittery verbosity of Murdoch’s lyrics. Here’s James in a moment of self-reflection: “I’ve got the constitution of an abandoned rabbit.” I like some of the jokes, too. Murdoch stages a fight scene where the two pugilists – musicians of course – first remove their glasses before trading blows like a pair of guys in a fish slapping dance. There’s also considerable wit in the idea that the helplessly dweeby James could ever hold down a gig as a pool lifeguard.

It all ends as testimonial to the redeeming power of the pop tune. That’s even twee to a fan (like me). Criticism as a practice is always fraught. That’s its nature. I’m obliged to come down one way or the other. The truth is most of the time I’m left with mixed feelings. In the case of God Help The Girl, you can double that. It’s a mess and yet somehow I can’t condemn it since so much of it is adorable.