God Help the Girl opens with a small musical number, wherein Eve (Emily Browning), a young woman being treated clinically for anorexia, sings of her uncertain present while prancing around Scotland. It’s a pleasant, if slight, bit of stage setting for the story, which follows Eve’s formation of a band with two new friends she meets upon breaking out of the clinic. The film is billed as a musical, but as it meanders along, first-time writer-director Stuart Murdoch creates something more like a melodrama about musicians, a thin but mildly enjoyable look at burgeoning songwriters in a distinctly timeless Edinburgh.
Being the bandleader for the seminal Belle & Sebastian, Murdoch clearly knows quite a bit about crafting pop tunes, but the film’s consideration of the work of songwriting is totally flippant. As Eve pairs with nerdy guitarist James (Olly Alexander) and affluent Cass (Hannah Murray), another singer, the script only seems concerned with how our heroine comes up with lyrics, and even that creative pursuit is passed off as easy and uncomplicated, spurred by nothing more than a fun day in the park. The rest of the process of writing a single song, whether it be finding a hook or the right time signature, isn’t even touched on. Thus, the film’s fascination with music comes off as purely romantic, an easy narrative reflection of the cutesy relationship that James and Eve begin to form.
Murdoch has crafted a film more about youth than music, about careless lust and indecisiveness filtered through spontaneous song. Toward the end of God Help the Girl, Eve decides to pursue schooling for music, whereas James believes in just starting to tour and doing it now, and the film clearly sides with James’s perspective. This feeling extends to the aesthetic, with its ambling handheld camerawork and zippy editing, and though there’s some salient truth to Murdoch’s “just do it” philosophy, making something with what you have rather than consistently planning, this viewpoint goes unchallenged. Though Eve is billed as our heroine, the story belongs to James, another shy, white adolescent who falls for a hip, troubled girl, and Eve’s ubiquitous sense of control and timing is frequently undermined, particularly when she essentially trades her affections (and body) for a chance to get played on the radio.
The ambiguous time period goes along with both Eve’s disorder and the toils of early songwriting as mere narrative window dressing for what is ultimately a mediocre teen comedy, given the illusion of depth, but never backed with any particular nuance or personal detail by Murdoch. Early on, there’s a discussion on the radio of whether or not the legacies of Joy Division and Nick Drake are indebted to tragedy, if their music would be remembered and cherished if they hadn’t died. Though God Help the Girl ends with only mild heartbreak, there’s a similar, unfounded belief at work in Murdoch’s film, that the career and craft of songwriting is pointless compared to the pedestrian drama that informs it.