If “God Help the Girl” were any more precious, Gollum would steal it.
This is to be expected, of course. The writer and director is Stuart Murdoch, singer and principal songwriter of Scottish twee factory Belle and Sebastian; there was no way this movie wasn’t going to be precious. If only it weren’t so slight, but slight it is. The story, the acting (though Emily Browning is lovely), and God help him, even a lot of the songs are lacking. If there is one good thing to come from the movie, it’s that you can use it as an acid test; if someone likes it, they’re a hipster. No exceptions.
Eve (Browning) is a troubled audiophile. She’s in a rehab center (anorexia), but occasionally escapes to check out new bands, and catches the eye of Anton (Pierre Boulanger), the singer of an up-and-coming band. Eve is weak from hunger, though, and is rescued at the end of the night by aspiring singer/songwriter James (Olly Alexander, whom you’ll swear is related to one of the Proclaimers), whose own gig went less well than Anton’s. Upon her return to the rehab center, Eve begins writing songs about her feelings, and turns out to be quite good at it. She finds James and shares some of her ideas with him, and instantly he wants to form a band. He invites her to meet Cassie (Hannah Murray), who’s taking guitar lessons from James, and after a quick number, the band is set. The problem (one of many) is that James and Cassie don’t know that Eve is a runaway rehab patient. Do you think they’ll find out?
Duh. Of course they’ll find out. That’s the maddening thing about “God Help the Girl”: Murdoch put more effort in the writing of the songs than he did in the writing of the story that ties the songs together. Both are important, but if one must trump the other, it’s the story, stupid. There is nothing natural about the idea of singing and dancing in public, but the best musicals find a way to make the notion feel organic, like the idea of that person singing in that moment was plausible. Most of the musical numbers here feel forced, awkwardly choreographed and poorly conceived (the bit on the train, ouch). In fact, the best musical moment in the film comes when the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon pinch hits on vocals. It is background music only, there is no lip synching or dancing, and that bit is the highlight of the movie. The song’s title? “Perfection as a Hipster.” Like we said, even the movie’s good points are a hipster acid test.
Browning has experience doing offbeat musicals – she was the lead in Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch,” which was originally conceived as a musical and, like this, is a better soundtrack than it is a movie – and as a result she outshines everyone here. The others, particularly Murray, have trouble wrapping themselves around the dialogue, though to be fair, the dialogue can be difficult. We felt particularly sorry for the actress who had to deliver the speech about the triangle, with music at the top and sustenance at the bottom. No one in the history of time has ever said such a thing, nor will they ever.
“God Help the Girl” looks like the work of someone whose sole experience on a film set came from starring in music videos – something Murdoch has obviously done – and from that came the idea of making a long-form music video. Story, character development and dialogue are de-emphasized in favor of the Big Number, wrapped in hipster credibility. Belle and Sebastian fans will love it unconditionally. For everyone else, results may vary.