And Help the Filmmaker While You’re At It, by Rita Cannon
Back when DVDs with special features were first becoming a thing, one of my greatest joys was watching deleted scenes. As a preteen who was just starting to cultivate an interest in film, anything I could learn about any movie was thrilling to me, and getting to see a secret scene that not everyone knew about was just about the coolest thing I could imagine. But the older I got, and the more DVDs I watched, the more I started to realize the sadly banal truth about deleted scenes: more often than not, the reason they’re not in the movie is because they’re boring. Sure, some movies have fascinating alternate endings, or a pivotal scene that was cut at the behest of a studio. But most are pretty blah. Stuart Murdoch’s new musical God Help The Girl has the bizarre quality of seeming like it was strung together completely from deleted scenes. It’s basically a long series of moderately pleasant digressions, never building to or connecting with anything larger or more interesting.
This is Murdoch’s first foray into writing or directing for film. His day job is being the lead singer and songwriter for indie pop band Belle and Sebastian, and God Help The Girl is based on his pre-existing sort-of concept album on which a number of different female vocalists sing songs written by Murdoch about Eve, a troubled young woman who absconds from a mental hospital and tries to make a new life for herself in Glasgow. The film version of Girl follows slightly more fleshed-out version of the album’s plot, and translates most of its songs into woefully flat musical numbers. Eve (Emily Browning) is in a facility being treated for anorexia, but runs away one night to go to a concert. There she meets James (Olly Alexander), a sweet but dweeby musician who lets her crash at his apartment. Eve doesn’t want to go back to treatment (and apparently can’t be forced to because she’s over 18), and James is clearly smitten with her, so she moves in indefinitely, gets a job at a restaurant, and starts writing songs of her own. When Eve tags along with James to his day job as a music tutor, she meets his teenage student Cassie (Hannah Murray), and the three of them decide to start a band.
This is basically the entire plot of the movie. A few other threads weave in and out without amounting to anything – Eve has a smarmy French boyfriend, James is sad because Eve won’t date him, the band records an album after finding other musicians through an inspirational putting-up-fliers montage. But it’s mostly a lot of talking about nothing, and singing about only slightly more than that. I was already familiar with the album God Help The Girl, and I actually like it quite a bit, but the flaccid musical numbers in the film do a huge disservice to its charming, witty songs. Most of the songs are sung while characters walk down the street or around their apartments. Only one – “I’ll Have To Dance With Cassie,” set in a retirement home on what appears to be Sock Hop Night – comes even close to having the energy and sense of joy usually associated with musicals about young people. The dialogue scenes play like a mash-up of Wes Anderson and the French new wave (Browning is a dead ringer for Godard muse Anna Karina), but while Girl is certainly stylish, it lacks both the precise internal logic of the former, and the raw exuberance of the latter.
God Help The Girl coasts for a while on the quality of its songs and the charm of its leads; Browning, Alexander, and Murray are all delightful, not to mention fine singers. But even the most charismatic performers can’t keep such a nothing story interesting for a full two hours, and Murdoch’s remarkable songs get regrettably steamrolled when they’re all staged in the same boring ways, over and over again. The album itself already has such lush orchestration and beautifully descriptive lyrics that it probably would have been better for Murdoch to leave us with just the music, and let us imagine our own movie if felt so inclined.