God Help the Girl
111 minutes; no MPAA rating
Written and Directed by Stuart Murdoch
Starring Emily Browning, Olly Alexander, and Hannah Murray
There is an anti-Hipster sentiment sweeping through the land—or at least through my circle of friends. Non-Hipsters have grown weary of sartorial and musical critiques which they often hear (or imagine hearing) from the mouths of the young-ish and trendy. Don’t let any anti-Hipster blowback keep you from this delightful film, though. Yes, the three main characters, Eve, James and Cassie, are all overwhelmingly hip, but God Help the Girl (website) has taken everything that is good about this transnational “scene” and put it into a surprising and clever coming-of-age musical set in the indie-rock scene of Glasgow, Scotland. For fans of Whit Stillman’s films, this movie is the answer to the question: What would happen if Whit Stillman became a Scottish hipster and wrote a musical? And if you’ve never heard of Whit Stillman, he himself is the answer to the question: What if Woody Allen were a hymn-quoting Episcopalian, less prolific, and not creepy?
God Help the Girl tells a story about art and ambition and healing that is subtly and integrally Christian. I watched the film twice to be sure I hadn’t been swept away during the first viewing by the frothy charm of the music or the setting, to make sure that there was some substance behind the cleverness—and there is. I feared this was a well-made-dessert kind of film: a cinematic slice of really good cake—artfully made, but neither substantial nor nutritious. This movie, however, is more like caramelized carrots—still not steak, but quite good for you! Nutrition veiled beneath sugar! Eat your carrots!
So, the film: first, it’s a musical, featuring clever and catchy songs from the genre of music sometimes (and regretfully) referred to as “twee.” The story follows the artful, melancholy, and beautiful Eve, played by Emily Browning, who sneaks out of her eating disorder treatment hospital in the opening scene for a night out in the music clubs of Glasgow, Scotland. She meets two men: the smoldering singer Anton (Pierre Boulanger, and yes, he’s from France), the sort of man all fathers should pray their daughters never meet; and the awkward and kind-yet-pretentious James, played by Olly Alexander, who becomes her friend and who encourages her musical ambition and achievement. James finds Eve immobilized in a stairwell, overwhelmed by her first night out and weak from her illness, and escorts her back to the hospital. Before parting, she tells him, “I know where to find you.”
The first quarter of the movie has several scenes depicting Eve’s time in the hospital working to overcome depression and anorexia. It’s a rare thing to depict, and the scenes move slowly, but necessarily so as they show Eve emerging from a long depression. Her great challenge in conquering anorexia is that on some level she’s convinced that all a person needs in life is music. Eve’s counselor works to help her realize that she needs to eat and sleep first, then have friends and family and work, and only after that’s all secured can she pursue art, poetry, and music. Eve soon leaves the hospital and seeks out James, who informs her of an open room in his flat. She moves in that day. James introduces Eve to flighty and sweet Cassie (Hannah Murray), and quickly enough they start debating what their band’s name should be.
God Help the Girl excels in portraying the simple interactions of this trio of friends in the unique world they inhabit. It’s not your usual neighborhood, city or milieu, so the movie serves as an adventure into a strange world of “punks, goths, psycho-billies, indie kids, rockers and just general knobheads,” to quote James’ line from the trailer. There’s a slice-of-life quality to many scenes—you get to eavesdrop in on conversations that these curious folks are having, and since none of your friends talk like this there’s a fascination to it.
I don’t want to oversell the film: God Help the Girl doesn’t reach the heights of what cinema or musicals can achieve. The songs are catchy and enjoyable, and you’ll be whistling the tunes the next day, but the combination of plot, character, and lyric don’t leave you stunned and in awe. As far as characters are concerned, James is unique and has a strong point of view, but Eve remains elusive, more an object of fascination than someone we ever understand. James probably voices some of the perspective of writer and director Stuart Murdoch (who is lead singer/songwriter for the indie pop group, Belle & Sebastian), and so he’s more textured and interesting. He does quite a bit for Eve, very selflessly. He holds the highest ideals when it comes to pop music, so he might seem a snob, but his actions are those of a devoted friend. As the movie was coming to its end, I kept expecting the hope and innocence of his perspective to be overwhelmed by some modern malaise, but just when I was expecting a secular pitch, Murdoch threw a pretty subtle theological curveball.
God’s role in this narrative isn’t fully revealed until the resolution of the James vs. Anton thread of the story in the film’s third act, so it cannot be discussed without spoiling the ending. Ultimately, God Help the Girl is remarkable in the way it shows through the story that God won’t forget the girl. He’ll help her, even if she doesn’t know the least bit about Him.
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