By Daniel Barnes
*Opening today at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
The first impulse is to say that God Help the Girl is melancholy and twee, majestic and minor, sweeping and shoe-gazing, with just a touch but not a touch too much of winking self-awareness, because of course it is. It was written and directed by Stuart Murdoch, lead singer and driving force behind the Scottish indie-pop band Belle and Sebastian, who have forged an enduring career out of merging the melancholy and twee, the majestic and minor, the sweeping and shoe-gazing, with just a touch but not a touch too much of winking self-awareness. God Help the Girl may be the least surprising pleasant surprise of the year.
Even if the film is a little more Fold Your Hands Child You Walk Like a Peasant than If You’re Feeling Sinister, it still emits a warming, album-fuzz glow, and it has the guts to be an honest-to-God musical. Most of the wall-to-wall songs are a little same-y in the opening, but they have a joyous, anthemic build, even when the subjects are depression and suicide. Recall that Belle and Sebastian recorded a song called “Nice Day for a Sulk,” and you’ve entered into this film’s one-woman kickline headspace.
Emily Browning (Sucker Punch) plays Eve, a very Belle and Sebastian-y heroine: she’s a sad girl who lives in her headphones, keeping the sweet boy who loves her (unassuming newcomer Olly Alexander) at arms’ reach while bedding a Eurotrash jerk. Unlike with Keira Knightley in Begin Again, you won’t be forced to grin politely through mere mechanical vocal competence here…Browning can flat-out sing, and that lends credibility to this Once-like story of a band coming together and dissolving over “the greatness of the summer.” In a semi-autobiographical nod, the band begins as a noodling threesome and winds up as a Belle and Sebastian-sized collective.
Like many Belle and Sebastian albums and songs, though, God Help the Girl is charming and yet over-packed to the verge of dreariness – Eve’s fight against anorexia was probably one thing too many for Murdoch to take on, especially when he places it at the mercy of a false dramatic arc. But the film is also infectious in its insularity, the perfect love song for people who can’t imagine anything more magical than “a period of controlled happiness.”