Review: Stuart Murdoch’s “God Help the Girl”

GodHelpTheGirl

Another week, another Buffalo News review, this one of “God Help the Girl,” the first film written and directed by Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch. I gave it three stars.

Fans of movie musicals like “Les Misérables” or “Chicago” might see that “God Help the Girl” is a musical, nestle into their seat, watch and walk out wondering what on earth they just saw.

That might be bad news for show-tune junkies, but it’s good news for indie rock (and indie film) aficionados. For here at last is the directorial debut of Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch, a twee-to-the-extreme, mostly charming, coming-of-age tale that both delights and confounds.

For fans of Belle and Sebastian, the Glasgow-based band that very quietly burst onto the post-Britpop music landscape in the mid-to-late-1990s, it can’t be missed. Not since Prince’s “Purple Rain” – to say nothing of Insane Clown Posse’s “Big Money Rustlas” – has a musician-directed film so captured the feel and lyrical tendencies of the artist.

The oh-so Belle and Sebastian-y main character is Eve, played by the superb Emily Browning, and as “God Help the Girl” opens, she is recovering from a battle with anorexia. This makes for a strong backstory, although the seriousness of the subject often seems at odds with the horn-rimmed glasses and hey-let’s-start-a-band! air of it all.

Eve is a lover of pop music and a budding songwriter, and this interest takes her to Glasgow, where she meets bespectacled beanpole lifeguard James (Olly Alexander), a wry, anti-Bowie singer-songwriter.

James is stunned by Eve’s songs, which, like Stuart Murdoch’s, are simultaneously sweet and sour. The film’s greatest songs, in fact, capture the Motown-meets-Morrissey stomp of Belle and Sebastian classics like “Lazy Line Painter Jane,” and make for a must-own soundtrack of blissful pop.

James introduces Eve to his guitar student, posh Cassie (Hannah Murray, best known as “Game of Thrones’ ” Gilly), and this trio spends the summer writing songs and putting a band together.

It’s a plot with the weight of a floppy disk, to be sure, and at nearly two hours, it often seems ready to blow away like dandelion seeds. The first hour, especially, is far, far too drawn out.

But then, roughly one hour in, just as the trio truly forms the band, “God Help the Girl” bursts into vivid life.

Specifically, as the community music hall strut of “I’ll Have to Dance With Cassie” kicks in, one of 2014’s most deliriously joyful scenes is unveiled. (Sample lyrics: “Shuffle to the left! … Boogie to the right!”) This is also one of many scenes that will thoroughly satisfy some audiences, and thoroughly annoy others.

After a standout scene in which a despondent Eve dances to the great “Musician, Please Take Heed,” the film takes another dark turn, and loses much of its steam. It rebounds, however, with a final fab song, and an appropriately wistful ending.

So “God Help the Girl” is not a film for devotees of old-school musical cinema. It is, instead, a creation for those with Smiths’ “Meat is Murder” tees lurking in their closet and awkward romantic fumblings in their past.

Even these audience members might admit, however, that it is only during the musical moments that “Girl” truly takes flight. This is the fault of Murdoch the writer. Murdoch the director, on the other hand, can be commended for bringing a Technicolor visual panache to so many scenes.

He also deserves credit for the casting of Browning, Alexander and Williams. It is Emily Browning’s first great performance (sorry, “Sucker Punch”), and the likably amateurish Olly Alexander (real-life frontman for the band Years & Years) is a fine match.

Like the songs Eve and James sing, “God Help the Girl,” is often silly, but it is always a charmer. Confidently dorky, with an unadulterated love of pop music coursing through its veins, it is a romantic embrace of indie rock and indie film idealism that, at its best moments, makes for a transformative experience – and a wonderful excuse for dancing.