Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: NR Length: 112 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 13+. The film is unrated, but its content puts it in line with a PG-13 film: the protagonist is suffering from anorexia; some cursing; some kissing and implied sexual content (two characters talk together in bed, with the implication that they are naked underneath them); some drinking and taking of drugs; a few conversations about suicide; some jokes about sex.
The coming-of-age musical ‘God Help the Girl’ has some relatable, affecting moments, but for the most part its characters are underwritten and its musical portions exceedingly twee.
By Roxana Hadadi
If you were to watch the coming-of-age musical “God Help the Girl” on mute, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. The characters are underwritten, the musical segments exceedingly twee, and the production design is more interesting than practically anything else in the film. Those costumes! That hair and makeup! But the script and the songs—pass.
The film is written and directed by Stuart Murdoch, the Scottish lead singer and songwriter for the indie pop band Belle and Sebastian, and his sensibilities are all over the film. The film’s three main characters are aspiring musicians; they make a very particular kind of vaguely rock-inspired, dreamy pop; there’s a pained romance thrown in for good measure; and they’re all styled within an inch of their lives. If you listen to Belle and Sebastian, you can absolutely understand that Murdoch has made a personal, honest project with this film, but that doesn’t make it automatically good.
Instead, “God Help the Girl” is uneven from the first scene to the last, and its biggest problems are, unfortunately, the two elements that Murdoch seemed to concentrate on most: its characters and its songs. Each member of the main trio—recovering anorexic Eve (Emily Browning, of “Pompeii”), the in-love-with-Eve cynic James (Olly Alexander, of “Great Expectations”), and his ditzy guitar student Cassie (Hannah Murray, of “Dark Shadows”)—seems incompletely realized, and oftentimes it seems like Eve is more of a walking thrift-store advertisement than an actual person. And then there are the songs, which are performed by the main trio both to one another and to the camera, but which most often serve as stream-of-consciousness narrative devices. They’re treated as if they’re groundbreaking, enthralling songs, but there is one entirely about how Cassie took her dog to the park one morning. This is supposed to be sublime songwriting?
The film opens with Eve, who is listening on her headphones to her favorite radio program; her connection to music is one of the only things keeping her grounded at a psychiatric hospital in London, where the young Australian woman is being treated for anorexia (and, it’s hinted at, thoughts of self-harm). Irritated with how closed-in her life is, she sneaks out of the hospital while singing a song that includes the lines “I’m bored out of my mind/Too sick to even care/I’ll take a little walk/Nobody’s going to know,” and ends up at a local nightclub where she catches the eye of bombastic, charismatic, Anton (Pierre Boulanger), the lead singer of a popular local band, and befriends the quieter, more cynical and sensitive James, who is kicked out of his own band on stage. (The drummer of the group, who starts a fistfight with him, criticized him as being a “bloody tea-drinker,” just in case you didn’t understand how British and Scottish the whole film is.)
It’s clear that James is immediately attracted to Eve—everyone seems to be—but they don’t cross paths again until weeks later, when she leaves the hospital again with a new, mod-inspired haircut, a journal full of songs, and a mixtape she’s named “God Help the Girl,” which she hopes to give to the radio deejays she listened to while in the hospital. After she moves into a spare room in James’s house, the two decide to start a band, but it’s clear there’s unresolved sexual and emotional tension, like when she sings to James, “It is you who has been my signpost so far.” Nevertheless, the two move forward with their music, befriending James’s guitar student, Cassie, and hoping to land a few local gigs. They’re a steadfast trio, and it seems like they’re all on the same page with their goals and interests.
But are they really? Eve is kind-of dating Anton, who she has never told James about, even though she kisses James once and sometimes crawls into his bed after having nightmares. Cassie does her own thing for the most part, but it’s clear that because of her ditzy personality, she sees the group as a fun adventure, not a career plan. And then there’s James, pining after Eve, starting arguments about the nature of pop and rock music, criticizing practically everyone else, and content to just sit in his room and ignore other people. How can their three personalities, which seem more different every day, continue to complement each other through the summer?
There are moments in “God Help the Girl” that work really well, but mostly because of their strangeness: the pompous Anton breaks into a thrift store to boss Eve around into dressing up for him, but the weird vibe is cut by a shot of the store mannequin, dressed and posed exactly like Anton, from shirt to wig; James, hearing Eve in the bath and wondering why they can’t be together, sings her a ballad that includes the so-bad-they’re-funny lyrics “Please allow me to scrub/Please allow me to rub”; a religious subplot randomly inserted toward the end of the film connects because of how genuinely Eve wants to believe in anything at all.
It’s those unexpected moments that punctuate the film and provide much-needed contrast; otherwise, “God Help the Girl” feels like an Urban Outfitters catalog brought to life and set to music. It’s pretty to look at, but it’s more superficial than anything else.
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