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God Help the Girl
[] Buy posters from this movie
by Jay Seaver

"I'll dance with all of them."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2014: "God Help the Girl" is hardly the first time someone has taken a set of songs with an existing strong narrative and made a movie out of them, and as such not the first to demonstrate that slavish reproduction isn't always the best way to go. There are far worse ways to make a film than throwing a good cast at good material, though, and Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian actually makes a pretty nice movie around the times when the songs are dictating the story rather than the other way around.

Like most good musicals, it opens with a girl sneaking out of a mental institution to see a band, only getting caught when she tries to sneak back in. A while later, when Eve (Emily Browning) has gotten enough of a handle on her anorexia to be given a little more freedom, she walks out again. She connects with James (Olly Alexander), the guitarist who helped her out that other night, filling the spare room in his crowded apartment and tagging along when he gives well-to-do teen Cassie (Hannah Murray) piano lessons. Soon Eve is writing songs for the three to play and completely missing just how smitten James is with her.

It also starts with a song, and the film isn't much more than a minute old before Eve is acting out the exact words she's singing, and that's frequently kind of cute during the opening number - the initial impression is that she's a teenager sneaking out of boarding school and going on an exciting adventure, so there's something very fitting about everything being exactly at face value. Soon, though, it becomes clear that all the songs are going to be represented just that literally, to the point where one number had me honestly wondering whether one of the characters existed entirely because there was a song with her name in the title. Sure, Murdoch originally wrote that song to tell this particular story, but showing exactly what the lyrics are describing feels a bit redundant, and there's a bit of strain getting them connected in a way that makes a great movie.

That's sort of okay, though. A lot of the people in the audience aren't coming to see the "God Help the Girl" album re-interpreted or diluted by a bunch of subplots or connecting events that weren't important enough to merit a song in the first place. They want to see it brought to life, and even if it is sometimes done in the obvious way, Murdoch manages that. Rather well, in fact, where it matters: Emily Browning's voice has a sardonic quality that gives way to a really beautiful fragility that matches what is going on with Eve throughout the film, and the music almost always fits the story and setting: Simple and minimal enough to sound unpracticed but actually be carefully constructed, poppy enough to get bigger and brighter when the characters are on an upswing, and sometimes just damn catchy - "I'll Have to Dance with Cassie" got stuck in my head for a good long time.

I'm not sure just how much the cast did their own singing - some of the names in the music credits were familiar from the acting credits, some weren't - but they acquit themselves well, whether singing, speaking, or just giving a look. Emily Browning gives what certainly feels like a good take on the sort of depression that leads to something like an eating disorder, muted but not so much so that you can't see her talent and wit underneath it. There are a couple of times that her performance has to cover what seem like gaps in the narrative, and she manages it. She also make a great pair with Olly Alexander; they're never really cutesy together, and he not only does the thing where James hangs on Eve's every word, tries to impress her with how clever he is, and backs down when that seems the wrong call beautifully, and there's never much doubt of his devotion or maturity when things get more serious, either. He also, for what it's worth, has one of the best deliveries of the one f-word that a movie looking for a PG-13 rating in the US gets. Hannah Murray has kind of a tough job making Cassie feel essential in the face of how much the movie is built around Eve and James, but she manages it, injecting the right sort of funny energy into every scene that needs it.

Amusingly, none of them actually sound like they're from Glasgow, where the film takes place, but even if the characters aren't actually of the place, it matches them, never seeming too fancy or down-and-out. Murdoch and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens do an especially nice job shooting the musical numbers there, since an independent musical is a tricky thing to get right; so many show signs of not having the rehearsal and shooting time to get those complex scenes right, or can't hire enough people, or have cast and crew either underestimating just how difficult doing this stuff is. Perfectly polished wouldn't be right for this movie, but they have to be at the right scale. And while the first-time director may be a little shaky in some areas, he's at least able to translate music ability to capture a feeling to film.

I do kind of wish that Murdoch had perhaps worked with a more experienced filmmaker - or, at least, a screenwriter - to tighten some of the storytelling up, maybe not put certain things so far in the background. But I'll probably watch it again or pick up the soundtrack; that song's still in my head and the movie around it isn't bad at all either.

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originally posted: 05/10/14 14:14:22
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2014 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 SXSW Film Festival For more in the 2014 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Independent Film Festival Boston For more in the 2014 Independent Film Festival Boston series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Maui Film Festival For more in the 2014 Maui Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2014 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.

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  05-Sep-2014 (NR)
  DVD: 14-Apr-2015



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