Glasgow-based indie pop band Belle & Sebastian may very well enjoy one of the most devoted followings on the indie pop scene, with a new album that emerges about every two years hardly satiating the constant anticipation from the Pitchfork set. Well, there’s a lot of Belle & Sebastian in frontman Stuart Murdoch’s directorial debut “God Help the Girl,” and a lot that’s just pure Murdoch — but god help the viewer who doesn’t have the taste for B&S beats, because that distinct style is the honey coating that could either make this movie musical go down sweet or stick in your throat.
The film begins with the nighttime escape of Eve, a recovering anorexic who flees the mental health institute for the beckoning lights of Glasgow’s nightlife. Played by Emily Browning (“Sleeping Beauty,” “Sucker Punch”) with sweet-faced whimsy, Eve sings, “If you gotta grow up sometime/You’ve got to do it on your own” and absconds for the Barrowland Ballroom club, where she encounters the seductive Swiss rocker Anton (Pierre Boulanger of “Monsieur Ibrahim”) who knows how to work a crowd, among other things.
However, the reedy frontman of the decidedly less-cool ensemble King James the Sixth of Scotland, James (Olly Alexander), ends up taking her home—but only because she feels ill and he claims it’s his duty as a lifeguard of a city pool to keep those around him safe. It’s his purpose in title, if not in practice, which the film reveals in one of its many unexpected and entertaining flashbacks. The encounter initiates Olly’s massive crush on Eve, which only deepens when she rallies against her illness by writing fanciful songs in order to reach the pinnacle of the recovery pyramid taught at the Glasgow Women’s Mental Health Institute, where “art,” “music,” and “morality” can be achieved.
Eve’s doctor recommends the aspiring songwriter write from her own experience, and the pop band that Eve and James collect in the first act suggests the script comes from Murdoch’s past as well. Each member represents one of the impulses that would lead his own Belle & Sebastian to form in the mid-nineties without the delusion they would make a dime. Spacey waif newcomer Cassie (Hannah Murray of the U.K. “Skins”), one of James’ musical pupils, basks in the conceptual glamour of playing band. “We’re definitely a band now. This is something a band would do: day trips, kayaking,” she says after a day spent navigating the River Clyde.
Convinced a hit-maker can become part divine by channeling holy influences in song, James anticipates their indie music could lead to ear-ringing immortality. In contrast with her new friends, Eve yearns for the fame and stability that is increasingly at odds with James’ visions of grandeur and Cassie’s laissez-faire caprice. The adhesive that holds them together is a passion for music that, like most movie musicals, transcends logical moments of entry into song. Murdoch contributes to this storied tradition of irreverence by delivering plot twists at convenient moments with a wink and song in hand to whisk away any misgivings at the lack of preceding development. The script rushes on to the next musical cue with little regard for plausibility or character development, a trope can be quite charming in certain moments and exhausting in others, like listening to an upbeat record on repeat.
The film struggles to maintain cohesion through these fragmented tunes, which sacrifice Eve’s characterization in the interest of fashioning her character to fit the emotional styles of the next song. The discontinuity extends all the way to costume designer Denise Coombes’ hipster ensembles, which favor overalls, beanies, and boater hats. (The mental institute rather looks like Urban Outfitters in Murdoch’s Glasgow.) That Browning changes in almost every scene and never wears the same duds twice mirrors her character, who also tries on emotions and affections for size only to toss any signature pieces—like defining connections and behaviors—in the bin for the next shiny trinket. Her scenes leave behind a shallow wake.
Featuring dark humor that differentiates the film from lo-fi equivalents “Guy and Madeleine on a Park Bench” and “Once,” Stuart Murdoch’s signature balancing act between bittersweet reality and irrepressible optimism can be found here. The torch singer and sixties girl band ballads peppering the plot all originate in Murdoch’s popular 2009 musical project of the same title that inspired the film. Their ethereal appeal eases the jarring scene changes between the musical numbers, and though they’re nothing new to past listeners of the record, Murdoch’s visual take on his musings offer up delightful little surprises. What would Stuart Murdoch’s “Grease” look like? His number for “I’ll Have to Dance With Cassie” offers a peek into that enticing possibility.
If “God Help the Girl” doesn’t quite succeed in convincing the viewer to toss conventional character development out the window, it still has its moments. Embedded in this musical crooning over Eve’s troubles lies the far more compelling story of a boy yearning for a girl he can’t have. The best part about “God Help the Girl” is how Olly Alexander wears that role and lands the Murdoch-like quips that surface every few scenes like prizes in a Cracker Jack box. Of the three, he makes the most believable and revealing proxy for this enchanting musical mind.
Criticwire Grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Fans of Belle & Sebastian and those who find Murdoch’s whimsical energy infectious won’t be able to stay away from this cinematic cream puff that is still seeking American distribution. Their taste may be whetted by the British Film Institute’s new U.S. Distribution Fund designed to help launch U.K. films domestically.