Sundance Review: 'God Help the Girl'

Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch’s directorial debut “God Help the Girl” is, in many ways, a classic example of the mixed blessing. Yes, it’s a delight to see a first-time filmmaker tackle something as difficult as a musical … but there are directorial moments that make you long for polish to accompany the ambition. Yes, the songs in “God Help the Girl” (already released on a concept album of the same name in 2009) are chiming and charming and clever and light, but the story they’re now plugged into is long and languid and familiar. The cast are superb, even if they’re not given as much to do as one might hope. And the film itself is shot on Super 16 MM, which helps it look beautiful, but at times, that beauty is expressed a little too preciously.

Murdoch’s original concept was to write a series of songs about the trials and triumphs young women face as they try to grow gracefully; the film renders that broad idea with specificity, opening with Eve (Emily Browning) escaping the hospital where she’s staying after anorexia and anxiety have placed her life at risk; she runs across the green and pleasant background of Glasgow, into a city of stone and iron. She loves music; it may be the only thing she loves. And at a show, after a band’s gig descends into an on-stage inter-band break-up and brawl, she winds up the guest of now ex-guitarist James (Olly Alexander), who starts helping her turn her thoughts into songs as unintentional therapy; soon Cass (Hannah Murray) becomes a co-collaborator and co-conspirator as well, with artistic collaboration and personal conflict – and, for that matter, vice-versa – soon to follow as clearly and predictably as the bridge comes after the chorus.

Of course there are legitimate differences in the crew – careerism versus creativity, the unexpected versus the sellable – and “God Help the Girl” accidentally critiques itself when the nerdy curly-haired James groans and complains when Eve and Cass wonder what to call the band. “It’s a Saturday afternoon is Glasgow,” he sighs, “and a thousand bands are having the name conversation.” Much like that tired “name conversation,” “God Help the Girl” is a very familiar story, and your ability to enjoy it for what it is will be a battle between your affection for Murdoch’s music, your tolerance for faux-retro faux-French affectations (a recurring Belle and Sebastian theme) and your willingness to abide as the story tentatively makes minor moves through a running time that feels far out of proportion to the story itself.

The performers are terrific – Alexander’s James an archetypal band nerd, Murray’s Cass a fast, true friend. And as our viewpoint character, Browning’s Eve endures both the slings and arrows of fate but is buoyed by the chords and choruses of pop music. Brian Wilson described the sound he tried to attain on Beach Boys’ record “Smile” as “teenage symphonies to God”; Murdoch takes the same approach, and while the songs have a lushness, beauty and charm to them, they also speak to the concerns of being a young woman in a world that can be as difficult as it can be divine.

Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens – of “A Merry War,” ”What Maisie Knew” and the similarly music-driven “Tonight You’re Mine” – provides the film with a shimmering look, through a vision capable of shifting between hospital-bed realism and the flight-of-fancy musical numbers. And Glasgow itself is very much a character here, and a welcome one, with its mighty buildings and verdant expanses, urban clutter surrounded by green and pleasant emptiness, glowing sunshine and cold, bone-chilling rain. Murdoch’s film is fraught with ambition and aspiration, but a little thin on talent and technique;  you can’t help but think that a little collaboration – or asking some other party to take up the helm of the director – would have made “God Help the Girl” less of a treat for fans and more of a film for everyone.

SCORE: 6.4 / 10