Even as a fan of Belle and Sebastian’s music I feared the worst when the reviews started coming in for God Help The Girl, the debut feature by Stuart Murdoch, principle singer and songwriter with the band. For those unaware of the wistful indie-pop act, they formed in the mid-1990s, initially as a music college project in Glasgow. Murdoch was one of the original driving forces, and although they have lost a few members during the past couple of decades the band is well-known internationally, having gained a loyal and dedicated fan base in the late 1990s. Very generally-speaking, their albums appeal to the Milhouses of this world, as opposed to the Bart Simpsons; they are part of a long history of jangly Scottish indie guitar bands, in thrall to the sounds of the ‘60s, with observant, witty and introspective lyrics. If you’re interested in finding out more this Pitchfork TV documentary covers Belle and Sebastian’s early years.
Knowledge of the band – not just the music but also the background of its members and their relationship with Glasgow, their influences, style, promo videos and general outlook – isn’t actually a pre-requisite for understanding, or indeed liking, God Help The Girl, but it’s entirely likely that newcomers to the world of Belle and Sebastian may find that sudden immersion causes a fight or flight reaction. This musical, which stars Australian actress Emily Browning as a young psychiatric patient struggling with anorexia, features songs by Murdoch and his band and taps into the same idiosyncrasies that have seen Belle and Sebastian draw the ire of many detractors over the years as well as the love of fans. Put simply, it is about as mannered and as twee a film as you’re ever likely to see, and for some that will be very off-putting, while others will find the work gently comforting.
It’s heavily influenced by those early college days – three quirky and musical students meet and form a band – and Murdoch’s memories of his own time in Glasgow clearly dictate proceedings, perhaps in an overly-idyllic fashion (even the local neds that appear in the story exude about as much menace as a gang of fluffy kittens drunk on cough syrup). The trio are Eve (Browning), James (Olly Alexander) and Cass (Hannah Murray, best known for her roles in Skins and Game Of Thrones), who end up as flatmates one summer. Their friendship develops swiftly and there’s a mutual attraction between Eve and sensitive, bookish James, but her head is somewhat predictably turned by Anton (Pierre Boulanger), the cool singer of up-and-coming local act Wobbly-Legged Rat. Aside from the development of the band as a going concern and Eve’s ongoing struggles with anorexia that’s all there is in terms of plot, which is spread thinly over the film’s 111 minutes; a bit more judicious chopping would have helped.
The characters are pure Marmite; whether you love ’em or hate ’em it’s easy to see why some people have found this film unbearable to watch (including my wife, who hated it): Eve is the very definition of the manic pixie dream girl, kookily wandering about town in a plethora of cutesy outfits while pouting at the camera, and the character will probably piss off anyone who dislikes the work of Zooey Deschanel (or, more fairly, those who insist on creating such MPDG characters). James’s limpness eventually begins to grate, and Cass is a fairly redundant and one-dimensional space-case, but there’s still something nice in the way the film champions these soft-hearted types, gently cossetting them in an unthreatening, middle-class, old-fashioned Glasgow seemingly built on cotton-wool as opposed to the old industry along the River Clyde, however one-eyed that may be. I know people who used to be less-extreme versions of these characters, and thus I can’t bring myself to truly hate them, even though I did find myself cringing throughout.
Murdoch also wrote the screenplay, which is full of awkward interjections about the nature of bands, or pop music, or David Bowie’s songs, and so on, while also being disappointingly light in terms of its study of anorexia and youthful relationships, the two main subjects it purports to be about. The dialogue is clunky, the performances occasionally wooden (though Browning is fine) but the film is often charming, and when Murdoch playfully mocks the personalities of his characters it’s actually very amusing: the sight of James having a slapping fight with a drummer onstage at one Glasgow venue in front of a baying crowd offers a nice spin on macho rock star posturing, while the decision to give the same character a temporary job as a lifeguard in a local pool results in a couple of laughs due to his apparent weediness.
The comedian Josie Long appears in a cameo, as do the radio DJs Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie, while several members of Belle and Sebastian have walk-on parts or play in Eve’s band. Browning is energetic in her performances of Murdoch’s songs, growing more confident at the front of the various stages as the film wears on, but again enjoyment of the songs will probably boil down to your ability to handle industrial quantities of quirky, saccharine pop. I liked them, but that’s hardly a surprise given that I’ve been a Belle and Sebastian fan for well over 15 years; the highlight for me is definitely a stomping number called I’ll Have To Dance With Cassie which is played in front of a bunch of dancing Glaswegian pensioners. Here Murdoch’s promo video nous comes into play, and the cameras capture all the (presumably real) smiles and laughter of the club’s daytime patrons. It’s pretty infectious.
Most of the time, though, the problems usually associated with DIY affairs or student films are evident; that does make for a sense of fun and occasional spots of ramshackle charm, with homages to A Hard Day’s Night and Bande à part springing to mind by way of example, but the dialogue is often clunky and there’s an eagerness to try things out that reveals the director’s lack of experience. A conversation taking place in a room in a psychiatric unit is suddenly and inexplicably filmed from outside, for example, while there are other incongruities that stick out, such as a random lone iris shot, as if the button creating this effect had just been discovered in the editing suite. I’m also unconvinced by the decision to build the film’s most serious sequence, in which Eve gets drunk, takes acid and then attempts to overdose on her own prescribed pills, around another breezy, jaunty song. It’s a risky move, which is always admirable, but it doesn’t come off.
Predictably it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. Produced by Barry Mendel, whose credits include the first three Wes Anderson films, God Help The Girl is a film intended for the margins made by people and featuring characters that like to think of themselves as coming from the margins. It has some good moments and Murdoch has certainly managed to capture the spirit of his band in this tale, but ultimately the film is hampered by inexperience, rather than improved by it.
Directed by: Stuart Murdoch
Written by: Stuart Murdoch
Starring: Emily Browning, Olly Alexander, Hannah Murray
Running Time: 111 minutes