The lively, playful, self-aware musical “God Help the Girl” has such a will-o'-the-wisp quality you fear it will disappear if you attempt to fence it. Writer-director Stuart Murdoch called it “our little hymn to the possibility of healing in music” when he introduced the film at Sundance, and that’s about as close as you’re going to get.
Murdoch, the lead singer and songwriter of Scottish band Belle & Sebastian, also wrote the film’s supremely melodic score as a stand-alone pop opera and nurtured it first as an album and then as a film project for a decade before a Kickstarter campaign, which inspired donors in 51 countries, helped make it a reality.
In one sense, “God Help the Girl” is a classic movie musical in which people burst into tuneful songs (and sometimes break into agile dances) whenever something is on their minds. But though boys meet girls and a variety of romantic feints and dodges take place, the heart of this film is elsewhere.
Starring Emily Browning, Olly Alexander and Hannah Murray, “God Help” turns out to be the story of three young people who join forces to make music not love during a magical Glasgow summer and come to understand that “just for a moment we were all in the right place and the possibilities were infinite.”
It’s a film that believes in the nurturing centrality of friendship and insists that the writing and playing of pop songs can free people to be their best selves, that music can well and truly save your life. And did I mention all those great tunes?
In desperate need of some kind of help is Eve (Australian actress Browning), introduced sneaking out of her room in a suburban Glasgow, Scotland, mental health facility, where she’s being treated for anorexia and depression, heading into town because “I’m bored out of my mind.”
Eve doesn’t say this, she sings it because her life and her songs are interchangeable, everything important she’s thinking is destined to come out in the music she writes. Looking the ultimate pixie waif, especially after she gets a Louise Brooks haircut, Eve is more fragile than even she initially realizes.
Arriving at a Glasgow music venue called the Barrowland Ballroom, Eve first catches the eye of Anton (Pierre Boulanger), the arrogant Swiss-German lead singer of a group called the Wobbly Legged Rats.
She makes a deeper connection, though she doesn’t know it at first, with James (Alexander), a sensitive, tousle-haired guitar player in glasses whose day job as a lifeguard hints at a proclivity for trying to save people.
James puts Eve up for the night, but she feels so uncertain the next morning she returns to the mental health facility, where a no-nonsense therapist helps her get her life more together and encourages her to write songs. When she records enough to fill a cassette tape, which she calls “God Help the Girl,” Eve sneaks out again to return to Glasgow to pursue her muse.
There Eve hooks up musically with James as well as one of his guitar students, tall, blond Cassie (Murray), and gradually they start to coalesce into a group. After a wonky afternoon spent in a canoe, Cassie enthuses, “We’re definitely a band now; this is something only a band would do,” but James, as always, is more reserved: “You don’t make a band,” he insists, “a band makes you.”
While Cassie provides the enthusiasm and Eve supplies the band’s soul, James is its theoretician, always thinking deep thoughts about pop music, refusing point-blank to have a “what shall we name the band” conversation and worrying about his chances of “placing a small flag in the timeline of pop history.”
In a way that owes a debt to Richard Lester and his Beatles movies, the music in “God Help the Girl” just happens, for instance, turning an audition process into a romp through a park and transforming some sedate old-timers into hip 1950s rockers. No one comes out and says that music is the language of the soul, but no one has to. We see it happening right before our eyes.
‘God Help the Girl’
MPAA rating: Unrated
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Playing at: Laemmle’s Royal, West Los Angeles