By Chris Shalom
CALGARY — God Help the Girl is about as twee as its trailer and Emily Browning spends about as much time flitting around in suspenders and looking winsome as you’d expect. But the film’s music-album mentality and Harold-and-Maude-lite heartbeat set it apart, at least a little, from other recent cinema outings of millennial preciousness.
Belle and Sebastian lead singer/songwriter Stuart Murdoch directs with a musician’s eye. There’s a bit (OK, a lot) of A Hard Day’s Night’s surrealist logic and the film jumps around its thin plot in cheerful recognition that most people are here for the musical numbers. But the narrative in Girl – an unthreateningly depressed woman named Eve escapes her cute psychiatric hospital and forms a cute band with some cute friends – bleeds into its musical numbers. When Eve finishes her first impromptu number with James, the mildly pathetic, obviously love-struck new best friend, he immediately asks, “Do you always sing to people?” The number, it seems, is as much for their benefit as for ours; it’s the first real conversation they’ve had.
And almost always, though many of the musical numbers span disjunct time and space, the musical numbers feel like progression rather than interlude. The trio of Eve, James and hapless rich-kid Cassie is literally formed through the music. It’s not that the songs represent their relationships, but that the truest parts of their relationships are the songs. The dialogue is funny, and the performances are good, but the cement to the trio is the image of the three dancing formlessly together during the bridge of their first number (lifted from Godard, probably, but never mind).
Of course, the performances can’t be overlooked. If there’s any weight at all to the movie (and many will feel there isn’t), it’s to be found somewhere in Emily Browning’s work. Eve’s sick, and she leaves the psychiatric hospital before she’s well. If there’s any sincerity in this aspect of the film, it doesn’t come from Murdoch, who writes and directs depression with an impossibly light touch that undercuts the movie’s overt moments: Eve is, like, thin, and she throws up, and she retreats into bed for days – all while the camera gazes at her with studied non-judgmental pity. But Browning is an anchor, creating gravity from small moments. Her body gets a little bit dull, sometimes, and touch reaches her differently on different days, and sometimes when she walks she swings her arms and feels invincible. Her moods are palpable in a thousand tiny moments and the movie owes much of its heart to that.
Well, that and the music. I don’t know how much it matters whether you like Belle and Sebastian (they don’t do much for me). Murdoch has made an indie-pop musical that stands on its own, and the music has a force of narrative behind it that elevates. And as strange as it is to say of a movie so obviously steeped in affectation, there’s a real sense of sincerity in the film’s love for its characters and the particular dream of youth that they represent.AB, Alberta, Calgary International Film Festival 2014, God Help the Girl