REVIEW: God Help the Girl [2014]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 111 minutes | Release Date: August 22nd, 2014 (UK)
Studio: Amplify
Director(s): Stuart Murdoch
Writer(s): Stuart Murdoch

“Find the face behind the voice”

Utilizing the creed “go big or go home”, Belle & Sebastian lead singer/songwriter Stuart Murdoch definitely didn’t seek to simply dabble in cinema when it came to his debut feature God Help the Girl. Beginning as a suite of songs written in the band’s downtime, he worked tirelessly to turn it into a fully formed musical dealing with the type of subject matter most probably would avoid when working with the genre. Focusing on a young woman named Eve (Emily Browning) who’s caught in a state of physical, emotional, and psychological turmoil, Murdoch’s tale is a dark one with a delicate touch. But just as those nightmarish moments of unpredictable suspense for the wellbeing of this ingénue weigh us down with introspective drama, in comes a poppy dance fantasy to brighten our mood.

The whole is somewhat uneven as a result—something that was no doubt unavoidable considering Murdoch’s inexperience with the medium. Looking at the whole objectively, I not sure I’d be able to fully look past this inevitability. I’d wonder what someone else could have done with the material, perhaps even about the potential of bringing in a script doctor to help with consistency of tone. About halfway through I found I was thinking just those things. I saw something great beneath its awkward quirk that had me laughing if not completely invested in the stylistic choice. Then something else clicked. Maybe it was Murdoch’s passion to stick to his guns and play the story out with melancholic authenticity rather than bona fide happily ever after; maybe I simply found myself drowning in the catchy melodies.

Whatever it was, I started looking past the aesthetic that reminded me of Richard Ayoade‘s Submarine—it’s use of Arctic Monkeys‘ frontman Alex Turner‘s music a huge parallel as well—and instead at the powerfully sad performances attempting to break through their malaise into the joy writing together provides. Because while Eve, James (Olly Alexander), and Cassie (Hannah Murray) are all lost at a crossroads in life and loneliness, magic happens when they’re together. It is very much lightning in a bottle with moods lightening, smiles forming, and infectious pop playing. We hope that it’s a sign of things to come, an escape from personal hardship and depression despite knowing something as heavy as that isn’t so easy to excise. So while it’s bittersweet to see the end come, we understand its necessity.

Anyone who’s a fan of Belle & Sebastian should enjoy the atmosphere and music—its plot-filled lyrics sprawling forth in poetry a familiar sound. The hyper-real sequences of characters breaking out in song and dance a whimsical complement in a music video sort of way. Murdoch was keenly aware of this, however, and in order to ensure we wouldn’t take it at face value as little more than a vanity project showcasing his talent, he injects a brilliant, seemingly throwaway line that totally washed artifice away. By the time James picks up his guitar to play and Eve takes over with impromptu vocals explaining her attitudes and feelings, we can’t help believing that her singing into the camera was for us alone. But then James laughs, “Do you often sing to people?” and the veil is lifted.

It’s a key moment in the film, one explaining the world onscreen as heightened rather than full on fantastical. This isn’t like Browning’s other fractured mind film Sucker Punch where the entirety plays out in someone’s mind. God Help the Girl is happening—the softer instances of fun and the cloudy bits of anxious emptiness. Eve’s journey becomes a universal document of the life of an artist: the solitude, the self-imposed pressure, the low self-esteem, and the incongruous appetite for the spotlight when inspiration flows. There are good days and bad, good decisions and bad. She’s trapped in a state of uncertainty and fear appearing to be forced upon her yet really all her doing. Creativity may grow in the chaos and false sense of security, fooling her that everything is okay. But it’s far from healthy.

Eve, James, and Cassie all have to approach this understanding and realize what’s best for them personally rather than for the others. The mental case, pedant, and posh princess form an unlikely trio to help come upon this truth. Do they write that divine song to touch the souls of everyone who listens? Not really. But they do craft some to enrapture the masses. A few ditties courtesy of Murdoch to get our toes tapping and supply fodder for his characters to read between the lines and know the troubles underlying their music. They enhance the emotion on display, work in tandem with the just left of center visual filter, and progress the maturity of these kids who are not quite ready for the life staring back. The musical aspect is a gimmick, but it’s one that works.

Well, it works enough to let us forgive any shortcomings thanks to the all-encompassing nature of the aesthetic if you’re willing to trust it to take you away. It’s poppy, but not trite. We relate to the trio at its center and the performances propelling the lyrics rather than dictated by them. Alexander paints the pompous know-it-all attitude you can imagine an artist of pretension possessing perfectly and Browning gives her Eve a vulnerability you don’t often see in musicals hinging on catchy dance interludes. She embodies the depression, mood swings, and terror in a way that enhances the periodic swathes of happiness because it gives them worth. Those minutes of self-worth and success may make the lows lower in comparison, but they also provide a reason to go on and proof that escape is still possible.

[1] Olly Alexander, Emily Browning and Hannah Murray in Amplify’s God Help the Girl (2014)
[2] Emily Browning stars as Eve and Olly Alexander stars as James in Amplify’s God Help the Girl (2014)
[3] Olly Alexander, Emily Browning and Hannah Murray in Amplify’s God Help the Girl (2014)

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