As James, the guitarist in the band at the center of Stuart Murdoch’s God Help The Girl, Olly Alexander at one point describes himself as having “the constitution of an abandoned rabbit.” That vivid, sad, self-deprecating throw-off line is God Help The Girl in a nutshell – sort of adorable, sort of pretentious, totally genuine in its affection for the hurt and lost, and twee as twee can be. It doesn’t really work as a whole, but it’s very charming in snippets.
Murdoch founded Scottish pop ensemble Belle & Sebastian, which has been an indie touchstone for nearly 20 years now, since the 1996 releases If You’re Feeling Sinister and their earlier debut Tigermilk. Rooted in his sensitively literate, God-and/or-sex-obsessed lyrics (which often take young women as their protagonists), the songs’ often cinematic storylines, the iconic cover art, and Murdoch’s vocals (invariably described as “lovely” and “ethereal,” though “precious” might be another way of putting it), the band’s sound and temperament are at this point a brand, synonymous with their name. It’s whimsical, wistful, gentle, discursive, a pastiche of influences, and, above all, pretty.
In a surprise to no one, all these words apply to Murdoch’s 2014 film debut God Help The Girl, too. It’s not necessarily a great film, but it’s a great distillation of the melancholy, nostalgic moods and sometimes subversive themes he’s been using Belle & Sebastian to sneak onto pop records for years. (The title track from If You’re Feeling Sinister — “She was into S&M and Bible studies / Not everyone’s cup of tea, she would admit to me” – remains a favorite.)
God Help The Girl focuses on Eve (Emily Browning), a young woman in Glasgow who’s been grappling with an eating disorder and suicide attempts. Not exactly the cheeriest or most comfortable way to start what amounts to a mostly adorable musical, but this is a Stuart Murdoch production, so what are you going to do. She links up with James (Olly Alexander) and Cassie (Hannah Murray), who recognize her musical ability, both as a singer and songwriter. It’s interesting that Murdoch basically casts a female lead in his autobiographical role – even the eating disorder stands in for his earlier battles with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which he credits songwriting for helping him grapple with.
The three do things like go on canoeing day trips, dance in incongruously 50’s-themed parties, and roam through the city, clad in the height of fashion – by which I mean, the fashion of the early-to-mid 60s specifically. Berets abound, as do homages to the French New Wave and Richard Lester. It’s a love letter to what Murdoch at least seems to take as a sweeter, more gentle time. (History notwithstanding – but it’s a bit hard to be cynical when everyone is so cute.)
The film sort of builds to the band’s unveiling at a rapturously received show, young people bopping and looking delightful as far as the eye can see. But its heart seems to lie more with Eve’s needs and sorrow, and her desire to get out of town, pursue her dreams. The other two know they can’t hold her back, and, in the classic style, we’re treated to a lost summer, a moment when everything aligned, kids formed a community and fell in love, and then moved on, as they always do.
In between, the film adds original songs performed by the actors, and they are nearly all wonderful. Browning especially kills it with her vocals. Sure, it’s a pastiche musical, and some of the songs and scenarios come pretty close to a parody of Belle & Sebastian motifs, but it’s hard not to be charmed, at least a little.
Ultimately, the film falters. I just don’t think Murdoch’s sensibility has nearly 2 hours of film time in it, which is why the short films and videos have always been standouts. As pointed out to me later, there’s also something a bit troubling and appropriative in the eating disorder subplot, which is in total contrast to much of the film’s celebratory yet nostalgic tone. Eve’s no Manic Pixie Dream Girl – if anything, the other characters serve to further her self-discovery, not the other way around – but that whole plot feels shoehorned into a movie that doesn’t need it.
I’d love to see Murdoch transpose these themes into a proper narrative that didn’t rely so heavily on what he’s already associated with. But it’s also a debut, it looks gorgeous on multiple occasions, and I just can’t quit beautiful Belle & Sebastian songs. It’s a gift to the fans and a tribute to the images and sounds he admires, and that’s fine. Sometimes, just some adorable dancing in fashionable outfits to an irresistible melody is enough for a pleasant hour or two.