[This contains gentle spoilers for the lovely movie God Help the Girl.] If you’ve seen any of the photos or musical clips from God Help the Girl, a musical by Stuart Murdoch, the frontman of the lovable indie band Belle and Sebastian (statistically the whitest band on the internet), about three sweet kids who form a band — and they’re not “kids,” but two twenty somethings and one schoolgirl — it looks like a 60s youthquake teen dream, with heartbreakingly beautiful lead Emily Browning clad in mod wear like a vision of the iconic French new wave goddess Anna Karina.
I mean, I don’t get moony over actresses, but basically, Emily Browning is everything in this movie — she’s Audrey Hepburn, she’s Anna Karina, she’s not quite of this world. We first meet her character, Eve, a sad girl in Glasgow, in the hospital where she’s being treated for anorexia. She’s got problems, but she also has something else, and that’s music. When the movie kicks into a song it gets close to something like magic. Browning has a lovely voice and some indefinable, evanescent charisma, and she gives writer/director Stuart Murdoch’s witty, ’60s-style girl-group songs humor and melancholy in equal measures.
Much of the film is about one wild summer, where Eve and her new friends Cassie (Hannah Murray, forever Cassie from Skins) and James (Olly Alexander), a geeky musician who is alternately totally in love with her and just her best male friend. The story feels like it’s Eve’s tale — the songs delve into the problems and emotions firing up her life. The camera loves Browning so much that it’s nearly impossible to pay attention to anyone else on screen.
Whether the life of a musician would be any good for a sensitive girl who’s still healing, still traumatized, still fragile, is the question at the heart of the story. Forming a band — and discussing what it means to have a band throughout Glasgow’s rain-soaked streets and verdant parks — makes up a lot of the movie’s scenes. It’s all very charming and funny, and the band that they get together, God Help the Girl, is very good. But mostly because Eve is a star; the movie knows it and does a lot of MTV music video-style montages, every character knows it, Eve knows it too.
Yet there’s a melancholy turn that the film takes towards the end, reminiscent of other recent music-soaked films that I’ve seen (I’m thinking of Frank, where Michael Fassbender wears a giant paper mache head). In some ways, it’s the end of Eve’s story. Everything’s wrapped up in a bow, and maybe Cassie and James will go onto other bands. Maybe they won’t.
And yet I’m not sure if that was the point. The last shot in the band is a close-up of Eve, with the Belle and Sebastian song “Dress Up in You” playing over the soundtrack. In this case, Murdoch is singing: “I am the singer, I am a singer in a band/You’re the loser, I won’t dismiss you out of hand.” Whoever he’s singing to “kept running” and now she’s “an actress” and he sees her picture from the train. It almost seems like a fuck-you to Eve — perhaps the song is hers, perhaps it’s about her. I’m not really sure.
But it adds a dimension to the film that made me think about it after the fact. Perhaps we were watching James‘ story, not Eve’s. A story about a dorky boy who meets a “crazy” girl one summer, falls in love, creates beautiful music, and then she just leaves. Perhaps it is the birth of an emotionally unavailable musician, the type that loves them and leaves them, breaking a girl’s heart every day. In that manner, God Help the Girl shares some similarities with Joss Whedon’s cult musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. A light, joyful work, arguably twee, set in a world that’s all beauty and surface and seemingly innocent of sex. Yet that pristine world leads to the birth of a monster.
The magic that comes from the musical, in film and TV, is when the world — so mundane — falls away for a second with the power of song. People start dancing well, in unison. People accept the fact that you can just burst into song in public. It’s a replacement for high, ardent emotion in a world that doesn’t let that happen. I like the idea of more people wrestling with the form of a musical to show something dark and scary under the surface. To illustrate the birth of a villain, an anti-hero. It could be possible that’s one aspect of God Help the Girl (it’s up for interpretation, really), but the sweet sadness at the end does illustrate one thing for sure: if forming a band is so joyful, then why can’t the magic stay around forever? Life gets in the way of the perfect three minute pop song, and there’s something kind of tragic in that fact.