GOD HELP THE GIRL
Updated: Oct 20, 2022
SOME OVERDUE PRAISE FOR A FILM TOUGH AND TWEE ENOUGH TO COMMIT TO ITS OWN WORLD
Released way back in 2014, the musical film God Help the Girl is ‘a big smeary mess of twee’. If you believe one of the Guardian’s reviews, that is.
The movie is written and directed by Stuart Murdoch of the pop group Belle and Sebastian, and it’s set and filmed in arguably that band’s ground zero: Glasgow’s west end.
The film’s origins lie in Murdoch’s music project God Help the Girl, which manifested in an LP of that name, released in 2009. This was a venture largely separate to his main band, and featured female vocals across songs focused on the lives of young women. Expanding the idea, the singer set about writing a screenplay populated by characters from that album.
So in summary, and to simplify:
1. The idea became the record and band, which...
2. ...became the script, which...
3. ...culminated in the film.
Its story offers us one short summer snapshot of the lives of three friends - two girls and a boy - who will meet, mull the ups and downs of life, and form a band.
There’s Eve, played by Emily Browning. She’s living with anorexia and scribbles song lyrics between treatment. Fleeing from her bed in a psychiatric hospital, she’ll wind up in the city, and at a gig will meet...
...James (Olly Alexander). James works as a lifeguard at the local pool. Baywatch it isn’t, but you get the sense that his occupation might be functioning as a bit of a metaphor. This is reinforced by his lauding of Eve’s lyrics and his subsequent instrumental role in assembling the eponymous band, whose guitarist will be....
...Cassie. Played by Hannah Murray, Cassie’s a detached-townhouse-dwelling concoction of clumsiness and charm, naivety and earnestness. She’s the sweetest character and as such steals a load of scenes.
A frock in the park: Eve
FANTASY > REALITY
Songs and their routines behave in the odd way that characterise film musicals: they pop up, choreographed and often dazzling, and with no respect for real life. In the case of God Help the Girl they work as narrative devices that push the story forward too. Also of note is the brief presence of a curious ballerina character (Sarah Swire) fulfilling an imaginary friend role and perhaps conjured up by Eve's consumption of pills.
God Help the Girl creates and steadfastly sticks to its own world, and it’s one that rarely encroaches beyond the borders of its own postcode. It’s a land idealised to the extent that the whole affair could be viewed as a fantasy location - Sebastianopolis - one that’s only really reaching say 50% for how things really are.
That theory is the reason for this post, really, as it’s a commitment at the heart also of Neverland in Shadow.
If that’s right, and if the film is mixing a little reality with a lot of fantasy, in one scene it seems to demonstrate awareness of this. That happens when Eve and James call out to Cassie and she appears at the window of an impossibly beautiful detached villa. Next, she lowers a rope of knotted bedsheets which she intends to climb down. But Eve and James, confused, urge her just to take the stairs and use the door.
It’s not quite a wink at the audience, but it does feel at least like a bit of a knowing glance - an admission that Cassie is the fairy of the tale.
The fairy of the tale: Cassie.
A DISASTER MOVIE? NO WAY
Back to that Guardian review. Beneath a read-on-further headline ‘Belle and Sebastian fans will try and defend this disaster', the paper’s writer Lesley Felperin offers reasons why the film didn’t rock her boat. These include Eve’s ‘broken-doll fragility’ as well as the memorably scathing ‘...this musical layers swinging-60s pastiche upon Gallic-style pop pastiche upon indie-kid angst to build a teetering tower of fey posturing.’
It’s not a review that’s being deliberately nasty - in fact the most bruising put-down is pretty much that provocative headline. Felperin’s actually a fan of the band. She just doesn’t like the film created by its frontman. And that’s OK.
Fine also are the handful of comments from Guardian readers. They’re equally reasonable and considered. Nobody’s issuing fatwas. Nobody’s irreparably damaged. For the internet, it makes for a pleasant change.
One responder bemoans the setting of the film in a Byres Road (the west end’s principal and overly lauded main drag) permanently suspended in sun-kissed 1987. Another writes:
It was 100% style over substance and riddled with twee clichés (e.g. who actually writes lyrics in their little paper notebook whilst gazing wistfully out of the window with an apple balanced on their knee?
Precisely what is it with apples and women named Eve?
Conversely, some commenters offered the film props:
It is certainly not a pop star ego project as it does feel heartfelt and original. Yes, it has its flaws, but there is enough to enjoy.
Twee? Yes, of course. I'd expect nothing less. And I don't think Stuart Murdoch would.
That word Twee - either as a plaudit, or more frequently as a stick to beat the film with - keeps popping up across historical reviews.
This blog mused on the word, as a genre, here. That piece was spurred on by Marc Spitz’s book on the topic - a work that sought to define and examine Twee across forms including music and film, but also fashion and books. Stuart Murdoch/Belle and Sebastian are referenced, and Glasgow is pretty much given credit or blame - depending on your view - as the birthplace of Twee in its musical manifestation.
A Twee text: Marc Spitz's take on a gentle revolution.
...AND THE TEA WORD
Even if Twee operates largely as a turn-off, the film holds solidly OK stats on Rotten Tomatoes: 68% from critics, and 59% from audience. And it won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Plus, a second, earlier, Guardian review, actually ups the star quotient from two to three and cheerleads for God Help the Girl's ramshackle charm, concluding that:
‘It evidently possesses a small dab of magic, this maudlin lo-fi spellbinder that shuffles shyly over, sits itself down and then asks you to love it'.
It can ask, of course - although it’s probably too shy and awkward to do so - but God Help the Girl was never going to be everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, it could be said that it exists precisely not to be everyone’s cup of tea. That it’s way too set on its own course to attract many ride-alongs.
A Down And Dusky Blonde: a lush and languid track from the film.
Maybe the film speaks mainly to people who salute magpies either explicitly or, if it’s busy, covertly - by kind of scratching their eyebrow. And to folk who might look up and nod at the Hyndland Paddington. Or to those preferring Halloween to Christmas.
The psychiatrist is in: James & Eve.
And if it does, what on earth’s wrong with that? A peek at Stuart Murdoch’s Twitter account @nee_massey reveals the affable type you’d expect him to be. Considered rage at Tory incompetence sits astride concern for the environment. Cycling trips and the Katharine Hepburn/Cary Grant film Bringing Up Baby feature. So do shout-outs to name the overhanging trees on a section of Glasgow’s Great Western Road.
And then there’s his delight at encountering a local hedgehog, even if it did scare away a local mouse. It’s no wonder then that, as one slating review reckons, the film winds up settling for adorable.
Eschewing magpies and masks, and polite Peruvian bears, the film’s outlook could well be best summarised by Xan Brooks in that three-star Guardian review, when he writes 'I hope that even non-believers will acknowledge the film's utter sincerity. It may be indulgent, but it means what it says'.
Sarah Sahim though, writing for Pitchfork, called the film 'an egregious mess' that romanticises eating disorders. She criticised also the film's lack of racial diversity as 'a microcosmic view of what is wrought by racial exclusivity that is omnipresent in indie rock'.
The point about the racial anaemia of the indie scene, in Glasgow at least, is well made. And Murdoch responded to Sahim's article on Twitter, writing: 'God knows I've yearned to know and love women and men of many nations, but being a poor sick white boy from Scotland has dashed my ambitions'.
THE ENDING (SPOILER ALERT)
The perhaps inevitable ending - again spoiler alert - sees Eve catching a train to London. Prior to this, her handsome-but-awful sort-of-boyfriend (Pierre Boulanjer), complete with empty promises, has been despatched and the band has played the gig it always wanted to.
But now Eve’s off to study music.
It feels, especially to James, like horrid real life and grown-up things have elbowed their way in, and now everything's spoiled again.
'Lifeguard, save me from life': James.
Suddenly Eve becomes a kind of reverse-Billy Liar. And she leaves broken James and Glum Cassie to reluctantly pedal back - and yes, on a tandem - to their pre-Eve lives.
All that’s left is James’ resigned VO:
Horrid real life spoils everything.