God Help the Girl (2014)

I'll keep on dancing

About a third of the way into God Help the Girl, Cassie (Hannah Murray) protests during a guitar lesson to her instructor, James (Olly Alexander), that she doesn’t want to learn technique like scales, she just wants to write songs.

“It does help to know your instrument first,” James says, with an eye roll.

I can’t help but wonder if this was intentional lampshading. Stuart Murdoch, the director and writer of God Help the Girl, is a longtime musician, fronting Belle and Sebastian. But he’d never made a movie before and hasn’t made one since. That inexperience shows: God Help the Girl is a messy, lumpy film in nearly every layer of its craft. Murdoch wants to capture the vibrant street life of Glasgow, but his instincts are so bespoke that the movie drowns in its own quirkiness. And the plot, which starts as a pointed look at an eating disorder, grows shaggier by the scene.

Amidst the clutter, two specific things shine, and one of them is predictable: God Help the Girl has a terrific soundtrack of indie pop numbers. A handful of these songs could headline albums on their own. They add a sweeping emotional texture to the film otherwise absent. The title track and “Act of the Apostles” are lovely highlights, but the number I’ll be humming for the rest of my days is “I’ll Have to Dance With Cassie,” an absolute dream of a song about getting lost in music, love, and friendship.

Another of the film’s strengths is the casting of the leads: Emily Browning carries the film as protagonist Eve, lending dignity and introspection to a character that’s flat in the script. Olly Alexander has excellent charisma as co-star and quasi-romantic-interest. And Hannah Murray is pitch perfect as the daffy best friend. No surprise all three have gone onto acclaim in prestige television.

The film’s backstory is unusual: Murdoch wrote and recorded the soundtrack, releasing it as an album five years before the film was released. It makes clear how central the soundtrack was to the conception of the film, and it also makes for fun comparison-listening if you like the film soundtrack.

Unfortunately, God Help the Girl’s strengths aren’t enough to get the movie over the hump. When all is said and done, it’s still a meandering slog. As personal and passionate a project as this is for Murdoch, I can’t help but wonder if we’d have ended up with something great if he’d stuck to the soundtrack and brought in someone who actually knows how to make movies for everything else.

Is It Good?

Nearly Good (4/8)

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