Film Review: God Help the Girl

by Chad Liffmann on September 12, 2014

Beautifully executed music videos wrapped inside of a disastrous framing device makes this a good film to watch on fast forward.

Emily Browning, Olly Alexander, and Hannah Murray.

Emily Browning, Olly Alexander, and Hannah Murray.

Fans of Belle & Sebastian, such as myself, have been hearing about Stuart Murdoch’s film project, God Help the Girl, for several years. From a giant online competition to find female singers to sing some songs he had written for women to sing, to a well received album of these songs, and finally a full length film musical with the same songs, now sung by the actors who appear on screen. It’s an ambitious project, a long time in the making, and it comes close to being worth the wait.

Emily Browning stars as Eve, a girl we meet during her time at some sort of mental health clinic where she is forced to stay while she attempts to cover from anorexia. She escapes to go listen to music, and then ends up back there, and is ominously told that she is required to stay and that she will be guarded at all times. Soon enough, though, without a hint of explanation, she’s back outside again, writing songs with a sensitive Scottish boy (Olly Alexander) and a quirky Scottish girl (Hannah Murray). Writing the songs helps her escape her misery, which is the only part of the greater storyline that feels like it works. People do create amazing art when they’re in terrible emotional states, and the way the movie depicts her taking the matter-of-fact moments of everyday life and converting them to song has a hint of magic to it.

What makes the framing device so terrible is that this is a girl who has been hospitalized for anorexia, and she immediately leaves this hospital and becomes the most desired woman in town. Guys talk about  how amazing she looks, and everyone’s in love with her, and there’s no hint at all that this is being done as commentary on how being dangerously thin and sick is some sort of hipster ideal for a woman. It’s practically irresponsible to show to girls — isn’t there already enough pressure on women to fit into some sort of predefined image? I’m not saying it needs to be a “message movie,” but you can’t use anorexia as your tipping off point if you’re not going to deal with the consequences. I find this troubling.

You could pretend this stuff isn’t there, though, and focus on the music, which is fantastic. If you like the twee sounds of Belle & Sebastian, you’re going to love the music here. Emily Browning has already proven herself to be a good singer in other projects, and it continues here. Olly Alexander and Hannah Murray are less traditionally good, but it’s clear that they’ve been directed to sing with a quirky, odd tone. Some will find it obnoxious; others will find it precious. The standout scene is “I’ll Have to Dance With Cassie,” which I watched a few times before moving on. The song is fantastic as is the scene that contains it. Parts like this are a joy to watch.

If you have any interest in the songs of Stuart Murdoch, you’re going to see this movie, and you’ll be glad that you did. I dare you not to buy the soundtrack. It’s just a shame that he didn’t bring on a script doctor or co-director for the overall story because it’s a clunky downer that only detracts from the uplifting musical moments found within.


God Help the Girl opens at The Roxie in San Francisco tonight, and is also available on video on demand services such as Vudu and Amazon.

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