God Help the Girl (2014)
★ / ★★★★
Eve (Emily Browning) is staying in a hospital as she gets treatment for an eating disorder. One afternoon, however, she decides to leave for the city and stumbles upon a club where bands showcase their work with the hopes of being discovered and making it big. There she meets James (Olly Alexander), a singer-songwriter who is aspiring to create a pop song that will be remembered for years to come. Soon, James and Eve, along with a girl named Cassie (Hannah Murray), decide to form a band.
“God Help the Girl,” written and directed by Stuart Murdoch of the band Belle and Sebastian, offers three or four memorable songs over the course of its nearly two-hour running time (my favorite is probably “Come Monday Night,” followed by “I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie”), but the story is such a drag that whatever momentum it manages to gather between two or three succeeding scenes is quickly dissipated by yet another expository dialogue that explains what is going on inside the minds of its characters instead of simply showing us. The former creates a passive experience while the latter engages. This is a critical misstep that costs this musical drama most of its charm.
The picture comes alive when quirky dance sequences are involved set against a backdrop of colorful backgrounds and extras. There is a real sense of celebration—sometimes ironic because at times the songs have a darker edge to them. For instance, a character might be singing about how unhappy she is when it comes to the direction that her life is heading toward and yet the images remain upbeat. Sometimes these contrasting elements are interesting, providing a much-needed whiff of dimension in an otherwise stale tale of three souls at a crossroad.
What does not work at all is when the characters are allowed to speak. Although Browning, Alexander, and Murray are able to deliver the charm without resulting to being too quirky, the script does not really give them much to work with. Oftentimes the dialogue is quite sad and suppressed—the characters unable to voice out what they really want and how they plan to go about attaining it. One can argue that this is exactly the point, but I counter that, still, it could been done in a more thoughtful or insightful way. Just because the characters have a sadness to them, it does not mean that the material can rest on tedium or ordinariness to deliver that point.
Another missed opportunity is the film’s treatment of the lead character’s anorexia. I thought it was too simplified. Basically, Eve is given drugs and a bit of pep talk from her psychiatrist during the first half of the movie. Supposedly, those two elements are good enough to allow Eve to function and to try to overcome the disorder. It does not work like that in real life. There is concern that young people will see this representation and assume that it is accurate. It would have been great if the picture had embraced more gravity, accuracy, and a sense of urgency when it comes to dealing with Eve’s eating disorder. It certainly would have stood out from other musicals out there.
“God Help the Girl” is not unbearable but ten to fifteen minutes of very good pop songs does not save a musical that is almost two hours long. If one looks at the elements of a great musical, it must have a story that is tightly constructed, relatable, and its messages must be universal. This one wanders with molasses-like pacing, only appeals to a specific group, and its messages are confused, even sentimental.