The indie movie to end all indie movies, God Help the Girl is overflowing with tight-panted bands and eye-catching hats. That it's also a musical means there's plenty of opportunity for the characters to sing directly into the camera about how emotionally deep they are. Director Stuart Murdoch, best known for his music career in Belle and Sebastian, tries his hand at filmmaking here, and in the moments where he's successful, I'm inclined to give more credit to the actors. His debut is a series of 20-something tropes run into the ground by lyrics full of navel-gazing and the misplaced ennui of beautiful people.
Central character Eve (Emily Browning) has been relegated to a Glasgow hospital following a bout of anorexia. Her counselor tells her her body is waking back up, and as a therapeutic exercise, she should document them as her feelings come back to her. This recommendation gives cover to the following series of introspective songs that follow, as Eve was previously musically inclined. After being released, she meets nebbishy indie band member James (Olly Alexander), who just so happens to have a spare room in his apartment for rent. Without much to do during her days, Eve tags along with James while he gives guitar lessons to Cassie (Hannah Murray), another interesting-looking and eccentric millennial. The trio form a band, recruiting backup players and booking gigs, while Eve's medication dwindles and James's infatuation with her goes unacknowledged.
For me, it's easier to determine why I like or dislike movies than it is music. I can reason myself into liking a movie, while music preference is an immediate determination. Musicals live and die by the music itself, and this music just didn't do much. Because the stakes are so personal, the lyrics have to communicate Eve's emotional progression and there's only so many words for that before it gets repetitive. The music itself is fine, but with the focus on the lyrics, it becomes insufferable. A similar film, Begin Again, had much catchier music while still telling story through song, albeit in much smaller doses, as that movie was not a musical. Perhaps it's just the genre, making God Help the Girl fatally flawed.
Visually, Murdoch is doing better work, but he's holding back the tide. As a location, Glasgow looks like an interesting place, verdant but gray. Imaginative sequences of Eve and a friend dancing through the city look great in the frame, though the sequences themselves are essentially an extended music video, complete with camera tricks and instant costume changes. There's the requisite running-through-park scene, plus plenty of other indie boxes to be checked.
Hannah Murray and her odd charisma largely save God Help the Girl from intolerability. Essentially her character from Skins, down to sharing a name, Cassie is weird for the sake of weird, but Murray's clearly having a good time with it. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and the gray film brightens when she's onscreen. Too serious by half, Browning is mostly wan and empty, and the main hipster offender with her various hats and short haircut. Alexander is a standard, pining friend who would prefer to be more than that. With his glasses and curly hair, a subplot involving a love triangle between Eve, himself, and a hunky European singer is thankfully third or fourth tier. The friend zone has gotten enough exposure.
The main problem with God Help the Girl is distance. Murdoch's band wrote all the songs long before the movie, and then wrote the movie around them, plus several new songs specifically for the film. He rightly fancies himself as a talented songwriter, as he's a member of a successful band, but it should be more unclear if Eve is or not. By putting his successful songs in her novice brain, Murdoch is stacking the deck. Characters tell her she's great at composing, except for when she isn't, though the viewer doesn't hear the material that leads to that negative opinion, so there's no evidence of progression. She was always great, apparently. As I was not a fan of the music in the first place, it felt like characters were either lying to her or I was unable to get on the film's level. Eve's recuperation transitions into her possible break-out as a musician, and if that's going to be the motivating plot, there was plenty of dissonance between what I was experiencing and what the character's are outright saying about her talent level.
Musicals haven't done a great deal for me in the past, and that trend continues with God Help the Girl. It was difficult enough to get on board with the music, and the addition of the indie hipster element didn't help matters. Hannah Murray remains delightful in her supporting role, but she alone can't elevate this film. Instead of dancing through the streets to the soundtrack, the impulse most associated with God Help the Girl is to burn a second-hand vintage clothing store to the ground. C-