Plays out like one long B-side
IS SCOTLAND becoming the leading producer of twee movie musicals? On the heels of Sunshine on Leith, an Edinburgh-set jukebox journey through The Proclaimers’ song catalogue, comes the Glasgow response, God Help the Girl, written and directed by Stuart Murdoch.
As frontman of indie chamber pop outfit Belle & Sebastian, Murdoch has proved himself an inspired storyteller, spinning captivating three- or four-minute narratives about misunderstood geniuses, lovelorn outsiders and sickly kids who weren’t good at sports. But the wistful pleasures are stretched thin in a film that blurs the line separating self-irony from tiresome self-consciousness.
The project began as an album of thematically linked material, released in 2009 and featuring various female vocalists. What’s most disappointing about the film coaxed from that source is how musically uninteresting it is. B&S detractors tend to dismiss their work as featherweight whimsy. But the band’s best albums – If You’re Feeling Sinister, The Life Pursuit, Dear Catastrophe Waitress – are brilliant, robust collections of catchy tunes, ornate arrangements and witty lyrics that plant their feet in the ’60s while referencing multiple decades of British, French and American pop and folk.
Perhaps because Murdoch’s songs are so inherently cinematic on their own terms, they resist literal translation to the screen. One of the least memorable B&S albums was Storytelling, which was written for, but mostly unused in, the 2001 Todd Solondz movie of the same name. Unlike that venture, God Help the Girl didn’t involve the minefield of collaboration with another artist, and yet, with few exceptions, the songs feel tacked-on and weightless rather than a driving force in the plot.
Not that the word “plot” really applies. The central figure is Eve (Browning), an Australian frustrated songwriter far from home, hospitalised for depression and an eating disorder in what must be the world’s most unsupervised mental-health facility. Slipping out one night, she catches the eye of Anton (Boulanger), a sexy Swiss-German rocker performing at a local club. But it’s James (Alexander), the humiliated English guitarist and singer of the failed act that follows, who ends up taking care of her.
Eve moves out of the hospital and into a spare room in James’s flat, pretending not to notice his gigantic crush on her. Instead, she keeps counting on narcissistic Anton to pass on her song demo to a pair of radio hosts known for launching new talent. In the meantime, Eve tags along to meet James’s rich music student, Cassie (Murray), another transplanted Brit, who completes the trio. Out of nowhere, their summer-long amble becomes a let’s-form-a-band movie.
The three leads all have distinct charms and their own way with a song, but as a musical coming-ofage story their journey lacks definition. Lots of time is spent with them kayaking on the River Clyde or skipping around parks and wearing retro fashion and striking poses while they talk about how they want the music to sound.
But it feels like almost an entire film made up of airy filler in the absence of character development, tangible conflict, emotional insight or anything but the softest of resolutions.
Maybe these three are playing at being in a band because they don’t yet know what to do with their lives. But if that’s Murdoch’s point, it’s an unsatisfying one.
The character who reveals the most interesting inner life is James, perhaps the closest thing to a stand-in for Murdoch. In many ways it’s a thankless role, bolstering Eve and getting little in return. But Alexander brings humour and a nice touch of nerdy resilience to the character.
While it’s insubstantial and way overlong, the film’s bright, cheerful look is easy on the eyes. And a few songs are quite effective at reinforcing the warm connections among the characters. – The Hollywood Reporter
If you liked What If or Frank, you will like this.
DEPRESSED: Eve (Browning) is a troubled songwriter far from home.