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MOVIE REVIEW: Music and whimsy make GOD HELP THE GIRL a cinematic delight

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With a beguiling adorable awkwardness, first time screenwriter/director Stuart Murdoch puts a song in your heart and a spring in your step with the oh-so-lovely, GOD HELP THE GIRL. Lead singer-songwriter of the Scottish pop/rock group Belle & Sebastian, Murdoch makes the jump to film with a musical that is truly a musical, with songs and their lyrics built into the story and dialogue, harkening to Hollywood’s Golden Age or even the Peter Webb directed Paul McCartney vehicle, “Give My Regards to Broad Street” or The Beatles “A Hard Day’s Night”.. Tapping into the ideal of music as the common denominator of the world, with the opening scene and eye-catching number, “Act of the Apostle”, Murdoch strikes an easy chord thanks to not only his easy-breezy yet thematically telling pop tunes (which you will be humming as you leave the theatre) but with a youthful exuberant cast who act, sing, dance and yes, do all their own vocals.

Set in a quiet, cobblestoned, pastoral suburb of Glasgow, we meet Eve as she is sneaking out late at night of what we presume to be a boarding school, heading off to see bands at a local club. Appearing to be “open mic night”, the crowd rocks out to Wobbly Legged Rats and their sexy frontman and lead singer, Anton (who seems to have eyes for Eve), before being less than wowed by newcomer singer-guitarist James who appears bandless but for the house drummer loudly banging in the background, prompting an all-out barroom brawl. One look at Eve and you know that there’s something about James and his music that speaks to her.

On her returning “home”, we realize that Eve is not in a boarding school, but in a residential treatment facility/psychiatric hospital for a severe eating disorder. Through conversations with her psychiatrist, we learn just enough to know Eve has had a tough life, a life that pushed her into depression and this disorder. Unable to cope, Eve’s one outlet is songwriting and music. Pouring her feelings into lyrics is emotionally freeing. But she wants more. She wants to perform.

Stifled and wanting out of the facility, Eve moves into a room in James’ apartment, allowing her to partner up with him to write songs. Although Eve believes she needs James’ help, James is convinced that Eve has a God-given talent and he’s just there to provide musical support. Joining in the mix is Cassie. A girl from the “right side of the tracks”, Cassie has been a music student of James’ for some time, but to little avail. She wants more than practicing methodical scales over and over and over. She wants to write and sing and perform; and inspired by Eve, that’s exactly what she starts to do. And so, on one bright summer day, a music group is formed.

But as with most groups comes trials and tribulations as James is falling for and pines away for Eve who is oblivious to his intentions as she is smitten with Anton who has promised to get her demo CD to some local radio DJ’s. And Cassie, well, while a bit flighty, is up for anything James and Eve want to do.

As worlds and wants start colliding and long buried truths emerge, not to mention Eve running out of a much needed medication to keep her on an emotionally even keel, can the trio hold things together or will they fall apart just as their career starts to take flight?

Emily Browning is luminous as Eve. Walking the fine line between fragility and calculating tough as nails persona, Browning soars with a sincerity and beauty that is at times enchantingly Audrey Hepburn kittenish and others, Bette Davis cold and enraged. Browning knows how to use the camera with her eyes and it doesn’t take much before you find yourself hypnotized by her, drawn ever deeper into Eve’s world. It’s a delicate dance that is only enhanced by an amazing strong and versatile voice that evokes wistful emotion, defiance, pain and joy with every note. Browning’s lyricism serves as it’s own layer of storytelling. Notable in her performance is the intricacy of some of her choreography which at times requires perfecting a clipped rigidity. Browning nails the movements.

I first took note of Olly Alexander some years back in “Bright Star”. He has an understated quality that many audiences are just now discovering thanks to his work in “Penny Dreadful.” Here, as the nerdy James, Alexander laces the character with a touch of musically superior arrogance that gives James a duality that is both confident and not. It’s an interesting approach that is compelling, serving as a connective thread that balances the contrasting personas of Browning’s Eve and Hannah Murray’s Cassie. And again, his musical talents are not wasted here.

Hannah Murray delights as Cassie. Free-spirited yet needing to break free of the rigidity of her family’s wealth and prominence, Murray adds a touch of ditziness to Cassie that is warm and welcoming - and charmingly funny. She finds strong footing with a “coming of age” and “finding of self” tone that buoys the dynamic of the three principals.

When it comes to bad boy Anton, Pierre Boulanger fills the bill nicely from his leather looks to a two-faced personality evident to all but Eve.

The real joy of GOD HELP THE GIRL is the music and the story construct as it incorporates the specific songs and lyrics into the plot. This is not a case of songs just being “dropped in” for amusement. Each is staged as part of the script and are poignant, speaking to specific thematic and tonal elements of the moment, yet never feeling heavy or maudlin. Murdoch keeps the songs and the tone of the film, light and upbeat. Adding to the engaging feel of the film as a whole is Emily-Jane Boyle’s dance choreography that accompanies each song, providing a Gene Kelly-Stanley Donen touch that is highly stylized and accentuated in movement and tone. Particularly joyous in song, performance and tone is a large multi-generational set-piece in a seniors’ hall to “Dance With Cassie”.

Interesting is Murdoch’s journey in making GOD HELP THE GIRL and the fact that it started back in 2003 with the music and specific song lyrics. Seeing and sensing a complete story emerging from the song, Murdoch knew it wasn’t a fit for Belle & Sebastian. That’s when the idea of a feature film started to take shape. It wasn’t until 2006, however, that Murdoch sat down to not only write the screenplay for GOD HELP THE GIRL but to seek out singers and musicians for a new band to record the songs he was writing within the film’s construct. Although an album of the tracks was released in 2009 complete with some key music videos which then aided Murdoch with his visual design of the film and became the core of GOD HELP THE GIRL, when casting the film, Murdoch was intent on casting actors who could not only act but do their own singing, which is what you see and hear in the film to excellent result. (And yes, the soundtrack is a must for your personal playlist as are the original recordings off the 2009 album.)

Somewhat light in backstory and plot details, the structure serves GOD HELP THE GIRL well as it puts everything and everyone “in the moment” for a French New Wave feeling. Set within the confines of one summer, friendships are made and tested, the fear and wonder of self-discovery pulsates with the beat of the music and the ordinary becomes sun-kissed extraordinary. Underscoring the “in the moment” sensibility is the tacit messaging about life and that no matter how mundane or boring or stuck one may be, every life warrants the joy and fun of music and a musical. Adding to this is some beautiful cinematography by Giles Nuttgens. A cinematographer with mad skills, it’s easy to look at some of his key prior films - “Dom Hemingway”, “What Maisie Knew” and “Loss of a Teardrop Diamond” - to see why he is the perfect man for GOD HELP THE GIRL.

Shooting on 16mm film, Nuttgens and Murdoch create a timelessness that is not only beautiful to look at thanks to saturation of color and the way 16mm captures light and color, but provides an ambient tone that engages with each shot looking as much a “money shot” as the next. Cinematic with a bit of whimsy, the result is wonderfully executed emotional metaphor with juxtapositioned contrasts. Gorgeous locations throughout Glasgow and its West End just add to the overall experience - Barrowland Ballroom, Glasgow’s Central Station, the Botanic Gardens (a stunner to be sure), the Victorian era Western Baths Club - and make a wonderful mini-travelogue for Glasgow!

Editor David Arthur finds an even beat not only with the overall pace of the film, but particularly with the cutting of the musical numbers. Done with an edge and often utilizing jump cuts to their best advantage, Arthur’s music video background and prior work with Murdoch and his music serves the film. Appreciative is the care by Murdoch and Arthur in the placement of musical numbers within the context of the story and visuals, scattering them from beginning to end allowing the ebb and flow of the story and characters with the music elevating emotional levels.

Icing on the cake with GOD HELP THE GIRL is the production design of Mark Leese and Denise Coombs’ costume design. Where production design has a bohemian shabby chic look and feel contrasted against the stoic timeless strength of some of the locations, fashion blends nod to 60's pop, Twiggy and the British invasion with a 50's vibe and even post-WWII London. Costuming - especially for Emily Browning’s Eve - leaps off the screen, begging to be seen on pages in Vogue. Eclectic blends of color, flower power, various textures and fabrications, schoolgirl innocence styling, all enhance the free-form adventurous styling of the film as a whole.

One of my top indie gems of the year, charming, enchanting, fun and fancy-free where an ordinary day becomes a holiday with GOD HELP THE GIRL.

Written and Directed by Stuart Murdoch
Cast: Emily Browning, Olly Alexander, Hannah Murray, Pierre Boulanger

GOD HELP THE GIRL plays to theatres in limited release starting September 5, 2014, expanding in weeks to come.

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