“I’m bored out of my mind!” a fresh-faced girl declares during the opening notes of Stuart Murdoch’s charming “God Help the Girl,” kicking the musical outing off with a big song and a big introduction, as we meet Eve (Emily Browning) while she’s dancing down the street, animatedly giving lyrics to her (apparently bored) emotional state. Eve’s boredom is a bit of misdirection, because she’s not just out for an everyday stroll, she’s busted herself out of a local hospital and is heading to the only place she feels actually safe and healthy: a rock show.
The big-eyed Eve is only really happy when she’s singing, as the adorable Browning noticeably relaxes and loosens up when performing her various musical numbers (including that lead-off jam), only to send Eve into an awkward slump the rest of the time. The rock show starts off promisingly enough – there’s even a dreamy lead singer to gaze at – but soon derails after a particularly indie rock-ish fight (it involves careful glasses removal and a well-timed slap) lands young James (Olly Alexander, perfectly suited for his geeky but lovely role) in the pit and Eve looking especially forlorn. James, an upstanding young man and a lifeguard to boot, takes in the confused and weak Eve for the night, and a fresh friendship is born.
Eve does eventually make her way back to the hospital, an exceedingly nice establishment where the staff does their best to make their runaway patient feel okay, but after a brief attempt to get back on track (and a hilarious foray into competing on the hospital’s football team), she splits and ends up back with James. Although Eve has kicked the hospital, an idea from one of her many attendants – to start putting her feelings into music – stays lodged in her mind, and she and James decide to start making some music together. They’re soon joined by James’ young guitar student, an utterly charming Hannah Murray as Cass, and something close to a band is born.
Stuart Murdoch’s debut feature – he’s best known as the front man for pop outfit Belle and Sebastian – has been a long-time labor of love for the musician turned filmmaker. Years in the making, “God Help the Girl” the movie pulls directly from “God Help the Girl” the album, a 2009 experiment by Belle and Sebastian and various female singers (including a young university student named Catherine Ireton, who surely inspired Eve) that gives literal voice to the majority of the feature’s songs. Browning does all her own singing as Eve (and she’s quite good at it), with Alexander and Murray joining in as they see fit. The soundtrack of “God Help the Girl” is mostly made up of reworked songs from that single “God Help the Girl” album – that’s how long Murdoch has been working on this thing – with a trio of new entries tossed in for good measure.
Eve, James, and Cass (the eponymous God Help the Girl) construct catchy pop tunes that smack of fifties styling, bolstered by zippy performances and the type of whimsy that’s long been missing from modern musicals. The film has the fizzy fairy tale feel of a Wes Anderson production, a reality just slightly removed from, well, actual reality. Murdoch’s skewed take on the world at large is entertaining and charming, and the film packs the kind of sugar-laced punch that is alternately infectious and just slightly tiring.
Still, Murdoch isn’t afraid to break a few hearts along the way, and the eventual injection of real world pain is a welcome shift change. Eve is unwell – no matter how great the band is doing! – and even with all that dizzy soda pop sweetness permeating the film, it’s inevitable that such sickness will make itself plain soon enough. The film’s third act breaks from the happy go lucky mentality that has driven it for so long, and the results are surprisingly satisfying, if a little swift.
Murdoch has made a feature with great spirit and a sweet tone – musical and otherwise – which should charm scads of Belle and Sebastian fans and even lure in some new ones. Browning’s the real star here, though, and though the actress has long been saddled with darker roles that don’t allow her lightness to shine through, her work here as Eve reveals a fresh facet to what she can do. Is it all worth singing about? It at least deserves a couple of full-bodied hums.