Film Review: 'God Help the Girl'

★★★☆☆
Scottish musicals are a lot like buses - you wait years for one to come along and then two arrive near simultaneously. Following Dexter Fletcher's all-singing, all-dancing Proclaimers crowdpleaser Sunshine on Leith last year, Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch's Glasgow-set debut, God Help the Girl (2014), is a far smaller, quainter and cooler affair. For better or worse, it's close to watching one of their records writ large on screen, with their whimsical but doleful tunes intact. While Murdoch's directorial style will be too arch at times, it ultimately wins you over like a breeze of fresh Caledonian air. Emily Browning plays Eve, a lonely, anorexic twentysomething in a Glasgow hospital.

Eve escapes her situation through musical numbers after a doctor suggests she writes down her feelings (as strange a comparison with Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark as you could imagine). Eventually, as Eve begins to concoct whole numbers she meets geeky hipster James (Olly Alexander) who, guitar in tow, rides to the rescue. They're joined by Hannah Murray (of Skins fame) as the air-headed Cass, a rich kid at a Glasgow public school whose own artistic pretensions are forming. The trio spend the summer together forming their band in a haze of frivolity and general tweeness. The fact that God Help the Girl started life as a 2009 concept album might have turned it into something akin to a student musical off the Edinburgh Fringe if Murdoch, who wrote the songs, wasn't such a strong lyricist.

Eve's tunes are generally the most earnest - particularly Come Monday Night - and Murdoch has an uncanny ability for capturing the rhythm of everyday life. Some of the songs aren't as strong as others - Pretty Eve in the Tub, which James sings while Eve takes a bath, is particularly bemusing - but the film somehow carries them off with an air of self-aware, carefree charisma. Murdoch manages to balance God Help the Girl's tone efficiently; Eve's mental issues are touched upon with just the right amount of sincerity without ever being prurient, and his film never sinks into sentimentality (unlike Fletcher's Sunshine on Leith). Even if Murdoch's directorial style is at times off-putting - the dance routines oscillating wildly from charming to naff - it's hard not to be taken in by trips into Glasgow's backstreet gig venues and the type of Victorian splendour seen on screen too rarely.

It's a pity, then, that the only well-rounded character is Browning's Eve - a cute, fragile concoction of bijou beauty. Meanwhile, Murray seems to just be playing an extension of her airy character from Skins - which might have been intentional. It's no fault of the actors who are all fine singers, but this marks one of the faults of carrying over a pop album straight to film. The only other characters of note, remarkably, are Radcliffe and Maconie, the BBC Radio 6 Music hosts who cameo as Eve's favourite local DJs. Murdoch's God Help the Girl will have its naysayers but should win over some through its lo-fi casualness, whilst Belle and Sebastian fans - who raised over $100,000 towards the film on Kickstarter - will surely give it their support.

This review was originally published on 8 February 2014 as part of this year's extensive Berlin Film Festival coverage.

Ed Frankl

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