Movies

Movie Review

‘God Help the Girl’: Belle & Sebastian, the movie

Eve (Emily Browning) goes from asylum escapee to band member in “God Help the Girl.”
Neil Davidson /Amplify
Eve (Emily Browning) goes from asylum escapee to band member in “God Help the Girl.”

As far as movie asylums go, Eve (Emily Browning) has a pretty good deal. She has her own room, a comfy bed, a window for looking wistfully out of and effortlessly escaping through, a wise and maternal therapist, and plenty of peace and quiet (it looks like she’s the only one in the place) to write down the songs that are bursting out of her.

As in other musicals such as Jacques Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964), John Carney’s “Once” (2006), and Julie Taymor’s “Across the Universe” (2007), the songs in “God Help the Girl” serve as the story. Written by first-time director Stuart Murdoch of the cult-favorite band Belle & Sebastian, the tunes (from a 2009 album of the same name) strike me as a cutesy, fey, wordy form of aural wallpaper, and though I’m no music expert, I’d say that Murdoch is no Michel Legrand, Glen Hansard, or Lennon and McCartney. But smart people love the stuff, so de gustibus non est disputandum.

When it comes to writing and directing movies, though, Murdoch has some work to do. “Girl” meanders narratively and with random chronology, some scenes playing like tepid music videos, others as unhelpful efforts at exposition, some as strained drama, and some as the genuine, funny, spontaneous interactions of gifted young people.

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The cast probably had a hand in the latter. Browning, for one, rises above the material. With the face, form, and aura of a Raphael angel, she subtly shifts from sad-eyed waif to worldly seductress, touching on many of the culturally imposed female roles in between, retaining an inner essence that Murdoch’s songs inadequately express.

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One sad night, Eve climbs out of her window and heads into a town that is a pop-song version of Glasgow. She ends up at the Barrowland Ballroom, bats her eyes at the bouncers and gains entry. There Anton (Pierre Boulanger), a slick Swiss rocker, catches her fancy, but she ends up with James (Olly Alexander), a bespectacled music nerd who believes that no worthwhile songs have been written since 1969.

James senses in Eve a retro-originality and star potential (he is also secretly smitten) and introduces her to Cass (Hannah Murray), a bright but flighty girl from the upper classes, to whom he has been giving guitar lessons. They decide to form a band called God Help the Girl, and enjoy fun, fans, and disillusionment until they must face the tough choice between daydreaming and making things come true.

Not to wish misery on anyone, but I think God may have helped this girl too much. Certainly Murdoch has (though his songs might be considered a mixed blessing). Teenage angst seldom has seemed so cuddly. “No one ever cried at a David Bowie song,” James proclaims at one point. He might have the same reaction to this movie.

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Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.