Stuart Murdoch is a songwriter first and a filmmaker second. While this may seem like a slight what Murdoch submits in God Help the Girl is engrossing, and to a certain extent, refreshingly original. It’s not especially commonplace to see a singer-songwriter take to the director’s role - Madonna, Rob Zombie, and RZA to name a few - let alone accept the responsibility of writer. But Murdoch’s vision is especially concentrated and filtered from an all too personal perspective. God Help the Girl may not have coalesced with my tendencies and preferences, but there’s no denying that the picture’s intimacy strikes upon some remarkably touching chords.
The film’s not especially concerned with narrative, instead it’s more preoccupied with the sort of in-between time in people’s lives. It’s a reflection on the sort of transitionary period that people find themselves in, where the jigsaw pieces are still falling into place. Eve (Emily Browning), hospitalized for depression and an eating disorder, escapes to Glasgow. Wandering the city’s dingy music underground, she encounters James (Olly Alexander) and Cassie (Hannah Murray), where the three strike a friendship and form a band over the course of a summer.
Murdoch’s approach recalls Whit Stillman: there’s clearly a nostalgic reverence to a bygone era to every one of Murdoch’s frames, which is also an affect achieved by the opulent wardrobe of his characters. But as bourgeois as Eve, James, and Cassie seem, it’s all a front for their own insecurities: Eve’s mental illness, James’ passivity and cynicism, and Cassie’s limitations as a songwriter. Murdoch’s wistful approach allows him to create fully-realized characters that only enhance the intimacy and joy of his various musical numbers.
However, at nearly two hours, the film becomes especially plodding, particularly as all three character’s handicaps seem to converge at the same time. The shift from exceedingly wistful to dramatic feels too calibrated for a film that, despite its genre, developed organically. And the numerous detours and asides that Murdoch employs to convey an almost dreamlike reality begins to add up to little more than affectations. The film can frustrate viewers that do not invest themselves entirely to the tonal twee-ness of it all.
The film’s most striking moments, beyond the musical pieces, are the comfortable silences shared between characters. Eve and James rest along the shore following a bit of kayaking. Their exchange is short and inconsequential. They are enjoying this summer and, without saying much, Eve is quietly containing her glee. As if about to burst, she kisses James. It’s a kiss of pure affection - of being happy to live at that very moment. And it’s something magical that Murdoch captures. Those moments alone are remarkable for a first-time director, though it’s unfortunate that the picture does not quite add up to the sum of its parts.