God Help the Girl

It’s easy to feel as if God Help the Girl is little more than a series of music videos connected by a slight plot that sometimes wants to dig into deep issues but only rarely does. It’s easy to feel that way because … that’s actually a pretty accurate description of the film. It’s a musical about three people who come together and form a band, and one of them escaped from a psychiatric hospital beforehand and will probably have to return there before the film’s end. But that doesn’t matter much, because singing and songwriting can overcome all issues, right?

Our lead is Eve (Emily Browning), the girl who escapes from the hospital at the start of the film. On a journey around town, she sees a show and meets James (Olly Alexander), a lifeguard who also plays the guitar. He’s teaching a girl named Cass (Hannah Murray) how to play. The three of them become close friends almost instantly. They go on adventures, they kayak, they write songs, and they sing. They sing a lot. They sing everywhere. They spontaneously burst into song and dance numbers.

The plot is simple, the film is light, the music is catchy, and we’re all supposed to have a good time — until things get a little dark near the end. Most of the time, though, there are only hints and nods at there being any sorts of things like “problems.” It’s just these three people, the band, the music, and nothing else. And that’s fine. Lighthearted movies like this one work as pleasant distractions. Most of God Help the Girl is enjoyable, but thin.

There isn’t much to it, is what I’m getting at. The hints at darker and deeper things don’t often amount to more than that, and the plot functions more as a way to jump from song to song and less to tell much of a story. The film happens over the course of a summer, and lots of events typical occur in that amount of time, but the film is far too focused on the music. Like I said, as light entertainment that’s fine. For most people, though, especially those who aren’t big fans of musicals, it’s going to feel lacking.

A central romance takes place, but it’s unbelievable. In fact, it quickly becomes apparent why God Help the Girl only feels like it’s working when it’s focusing on the music: that’s the only thing that can do well. The film’s writer-director is Stuart Murdoch, of the band Belle & Sebastian, here making his filmmaking debut. He knows music, but knows less about compelling narratives and characters. As a result, only the musical sections feel like they’re inspired. Everything else exists just to get to the next song.

It’s too long, too, which just highlights how poor the plot is. Cut this project down to 80 or 90 minutes (at the longest) and it would have retained more of its charm, and not made us think so much about how little story and characters there is. The songs come from an album of the same name that Murdoch created. So, really, the film is just advertising that album. Or maybe it works in conjunction with the album. Or it’s all one big project and to enjoy one you need to experience the other. But that’s no excuse.

If you listened to the Sucker Punch soundtrack (or heard a couple of the songs in the film, which if you haven’t seen, you should totally do right now), you know that Emily Browning can sing. Really, she can. It turns out that Olly Alexander and Hannah Murray can also sing. The songs are the best part of the film. They’re catchy and often accompanied by enjoyable dance routines, or other scenes that feel directly lifted from a music video. But you can hear the songs on the album — albeit sung by different people — and not waste almost two hours of your life by doing so.

God Help the Girl is a movie by someone with no experience making films, and it kind of shows. The musical segments are great, and the whole experience works as a very, very light entertainment, but the plot is super thin, the characters are shallow, and any hints at depth or more important issues wind up staying at that level; they’re never explored. The songs are catchy and fun, but the film is far too long to justify sitting through it to hear them.

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