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Sundance Film Review: ‘God Help the Girl’

This debut film by Belle and Sebastian singer-songwriter Stuart Murdoch is a slender exercise in self-conscious charm.

With:

Emily Browning, Olly Alexander, Hannah Murray, Pierre Boulanger, Cora Bissett, Mark Radcliff, Stuart Maconie.

Those keen on Belle and Sebastian’s very particular brand of pop twee will want to cuddle up to lead singer-songwriter Stuart Murdoch’s debut film, “God Help the Girl,” like a hitherto mislaid childhood teddy bear. Those who think the veteran Scottish indie rock faves can err on the precious side may feel otherwise about a Glasgow twentysomethings musical that’s sorta like “Slackers” meets “Singles” as written by A.A. Milne. Starring Emily Browning as an adorably depressed girl starting a band, this slender exercise in self-conscious charm will face uneven critical support and sales interest.

We first meet Eve (Browning) as she’s seemingly sneaking out of boarding school to see bands at a Glasgow club. There she’s flirted with by Anton (Pierre Boulanger), the sexy Swiss frontman of screamo outfit Wobbly Legged Rats, and witnesses what becomes a one-song debacle when classically bespectacled, skinny, sensitive singer-songwriter James (Olly Alexander) spars with an over-loud drummer. Upon returning home, we realize Eve is actually in residential treatment for eating disorders and presumably other issues at a hospital where her unauthorized field trips are not appreciated.

Nevertheless, she’s apparently given leave to move into a free room in the apartment of new friend James. They promptly begin writing together, or rather he helps her writing, since he’s decided that hers is the God-given talent. (Of course, all the characters write songs in Murdoch’s bittersweet, casual, what-I-did-today authorial voice.) They’re joined by rich girl Cassie (Hannah Murray), who’s been taking lessons from James but finds Eve’s breezy input more stimulating.

James moons over Eve, who politely ignores his obvious infatuation while wasting time with the less soulful, non-dweeby Anton, and turns the head of every other man in her path. The script can’t seem to decide whether she’s a fragile little butterfly a steel one, or both — certainly Browning’s preening, kittenish turn suggests Eve is more calculating than free-spirited, despite her occasional relapses into a funk defined by the striking of glamorous, melancholy poses. Murdoch has her staring at us (i.e., the camera) much of the time, to theoretically bewitching impact, particularly whenever she’s singing. (Browning’s vocal mix of wispiness and supple strength is a fine match to his music.) But the general, probably unintended effect is to suggest Eve doesn’t need God or anyone else’s help — she’ll clearly help herself, thank you very much.

There are a lot of songs here, most of them staged more like monologues or dialogues than anything approaching a production number. The biggest setpiece, which sets “I’ll Have to Dance With Cassie” in a seniors’ dance hall, is a bit of a hectic mess. The only time Emily-Jane Boyle’s choreography really articulates a scene is in a too-brief later bit in a gymnasium.

The plot is barely there, and so are the jobs, family and other obligations that might prevent our protags from wandering around Glasgow like kids on perpetual school holiday. (Eventually we glean they’re meant to be at that moment just before entering university or choosing another first step into adulthood.) Of course they also make music, but in the zero-to-60 manner of traditional musicals where finding an initial chord or lyric suddenly sprouts a whole finished song, complete with invisible backing instrumentation. (Thesps duly sing and play when shown doing so, though “God Help the Girl” was actually first released as a soundtrack several years ago with different singers, long before the Murdoch had finished his script.)

Murdoch’s willfully unpolished, pettable musical sensibility extends to the filmmaking aesthetics for better or worse, with Giles Nuttgens shooting in grainy 16mm, and other design contributions hewing to an air of glorified amateur simplicity. The actor who hits the desired note of unaffected sweetness best is Alexander, though no one here gets much help creating a character from the airy script, which can’t be said to offer more than the most desultory stab at narrative arc or resolution, either. It will be up to viewers to decide whether “God Help the Girl” is ingratiatingly naive art, gratingly inept art, or a bit of both.

Sundance Film Review: 'God Help the Girl'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema — competing), Jan. 19, 2014. Running time: 111 MIN.

Production:

(U.K.) A Zephyr and Singer Films presentation of a Barry Mendel production in association with Creative Scotland, Hanway Films, British Film Co., Savalas Film. (International sales: Hanway Films, London.) Produced by Barry Mendel. Executive producers, Chris Curling, Chris Faulis, Steve Milne, Phil Robertson. Co-producer, Carole Sheridan.

Crew:

Directed, written by Stuart Murdoch. Camera (color, 16mm-to-HD), Giles Nuttgens; editor, David Arthur; production designer, Mark Leese; art director, Caroline Grebbell; costume designer, Denise Coombs; sound (Dolby Digital), Alastair Mason; re-recording mixers, Iain Anderson, Kahl Henderson; choreographer, Emily-Jane Boyle; assistant director, Neil Wallace; casting, Kahleen Crawford.

With:

Emily Browning, Olly Alexander, Hannah Murray, Pierre Boulanger, Cora Bissett, Mark Radcliff, Stuart Maconie.

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