God Help The Girl finds Belle And Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch expanding his eponymous song suite—previously released as a stand-alone album—into a batty, Richard Lester-esque 16 mm musical. Despite some overt nods to The Beatles and A Hard Day’s Night, the biggest referent appears to be The Knack… And How To Get It, its influence apparent in the non-stop movement of the characters, who can’t seem to have a conversation without jumping around the frame and who spend most of the movie skipping between private spaces (bedrooms, practice rooms, first-floor parlors) and public parks, while also flitting between comedy and tragedy.
The albums and singles Murdoch produced during his band’s early creative peak distilled a handful of sonic references into a delicate sensibility, resulting in something that felt enigmatically personal, lived-in, and out of time. His retro-styled directorial debut is nowhere near as graceful; though its pop-cultural allusions tend to be on the nose (a little Band Of Outsiders here, a Smiths T-shirt there), they still add up to a movie that feels freewheeling and energetic. In part, that’s because the filmmaking era Murdoch clearly fetishizes—the early to mid-1960s—was marked by reckless outward growth, with the cinemas of Western and Eastern Europe and Japan continually testing boundaries of style and subject matter.
God Help The Girl is, in other words, a spotty movie—sometimes silly, sometimes dead serious. It is, however, nobly spotty—inconsistent in a way contemporary productions rarely are, its shortcomings the result of an excess of creative energy, rather than a lack thereof. Visual gags—like a handsome man standing next to an identically posed and dressed mannequin, or two rail-thin indie rockers whipping off their thick-framed glasses in unison before a fistfight—abound. And Giles Nuttgens’ largely handheld camerawork often frames the characters from inquisitive, canted angles. (Nuttgens, best known for his work with David Mackenzie and Deepa Mehta, was also the cinematographer of the notorious canted-angle extravaganza Battlefield Earth; it goes without saying that the technique works much better here.)
God Help The Girl has a thin sliver of plot involving a tiny, troubled young woman named Eve (Emily Browning, wearing a Rita Tushingham haircut) who starts a band with pool lifeguard James (Olly Alexander) and not-quite-musician Cassie (Hannah Murray). But it’s mostly focused on snapshotting emotional states, whether reckless happiness or austere loneliness; the movie is, in part, a testament to the versatility of the jump cut as a method for conveying how characters feel. Ironically, the musical numbers are its least imaginative aspect; Murdoch’s songcraft is typically impeccable (“Act Of The Apostle” is a heck of an opener, and “I’ll Have To Dance With Cassie” is Broadway-stage sized), but his approach to his own music tends to be either literalist or cut-up music-video generic. Nonetheless, despite—or, perhaps, because of—its flaws, God Help The Girl manages to channel the freeform filmmaking of an era when young, adventurous movies were still commonplace. Its mixed tones—jokey cutesiness, Old Testament-free Christianity, depressed realism—suggest a filmmaker trying to fit as much experience as possible into a movie, all the while trying to have fun with the medium.