God Help the Girl Dir. Stuart Murdoch

[Zephyr Films; 2014]

Styles: musical, drama, coming of age
Others: Band of Outsiders, Anna, Moonrise Kingdom

Nothing brings back waves of memory like a song. Stuart Murdoch’s directorial debut, God Help the Girl paints the story of a golden summer when three young aspiring musicians, Eve, James, and Cassie, converge to form a pop group. There is something stirring about the soundtrack of their lives that somehow recalls a collective unconscious of past memories, one that pulsates with nostalgia for the fleeting moments of a perfect day and everything — rain or shine — that comes with falling in love and realizing one’s dreams. Shot on gorgeous 16 millimeter stock, God Help the Girl vibrates with the warmth of a home movie. Watching and living vicariously through the characters, one can’t help but fall for Eve just as James does, and experience the roller coaster of hope, longing, and despair that so often accompanies first love.

We first meet the star of the film, Eve (Emily Browning), as she’s escaping from a hospital ward in the early morning for a day of freedom, hinting at a turbulent past and a troubled disposition. Gamboling through Glasgow streets from dawn till dusk, Eve sings of music as both her liberator and a path towards self-discovery: “I tune in at night, when my mum and my dad start to fight; I put on my headphones… My only choice is to find the face behind the voice.” On the last note of the song, she strolls into a club where she meets James (Olly Alexander), a true nerd and music snob. As the summer progresses, he — along with Cassie (Hannah Murray), his spacey and affable guitar student — becomes a friend, roommate, and musical co-conspirator to Eve.

The film has scenes reminiscent of New Wave films, such as Anna Karina (with whom lead actress Emily Browning bears a striking resemblance) rocking out to Serge Gainsbourg songs in Anna and dancing the Madison with her companions in Band of Outsiders. Viwers might even think of the iconic moment in Jules and Jim, in which the three young protagonists race playfully towards camera. Like these films, the story arc of the God Help the Girl is subtle, and has more to do with creating an atmosphere — a certain world at a particular time in one’s life — than creating dramatic Act I, II, and III movements. Unlike many mainstream Hollywood movies, the major shifts in here occur in the internal workings of the characters, not in milestone events.

Part of the singularity of God Help the Girl likely has to do with its origins: as a song as opposed to a script. Stuart Murdoch, known best as the lead singer and songwriter of Belle and Sebastian, first dreamt up the story when a tune came to him during a morning jog. It was unlike any other song he’d written for his band, and he began to craft a set of songs that would become both a concept album for a girl group with a Ronettes kind of flair, and the basis of a script weaving in the music from the record. All in all, God Help the Girl was ten years in the making, from its inception as a song to its realization on celluloid.

Under the mentorship of veteran producer Barry Mendel (known for his work on Wes Anderson’s breakthrough film Rushmore), Stuart Murdoch has made a delectable first mark on cinema. Like his protagonists, it is evident that Murdoch is quickly finding his voice in a new medium. There are a handful of out of moments when the writer seems to be winking at the audience, such as when Eve and James beckon Cassie to join them on a day trip at her window and she tosses a pre-knotted bed sheet out the window to climb down on. Nonetheless, as a whole, these moments don’t make the film any less moving.

With its sublime colors, poetic cinematography, and powerful acting and musical performances by Browning, Alexander, and Murray, God Help the Girl is a treat for the senses and a poignant portrayal of coming of age. Murdoch’s sincere and diaristic approach to storytelling presents itself as an answer to François Truffaut’s prediction: “The film of tomorrow appears to me as even more personal than an individual and autobiographical novel, like a confession, or a diary.”

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