If the music of Stuart Murdoch’s indie-pop band Belle and Sebastian is like the Smiths filtered through a rainbow, his film debut is like Lars von Trier on happy pills. His musical about a troubled young woman in gloomy Scotland is like some twee mashup of Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark. Yet unlike those idiosyncratic films, or the fanciful songs of Belle and Sebastian, God Help the Girlis cliched and bumbling, a coming-of-age tale as awkward as its characters.
The film’s central figure is Eve (Emily Browning), a stunning young woman struggling with anorexia whom we meet at a Glasgow hospital. Though she’s quite sick, she’s also an irrepressible music lover. Her pretty face and mod style attracts admirers when she breaks out of her ward, which is often. She meets handsome rocker Anton (Pierre Boulanger) and shy songwriter James (Olly Alexander), becoming close to the latter and his friend Cassie (Hannah Murray). Those three form a band, while Eve sees Anton romantically on the side.
The crowd-sourced God Help the Girl features 28 Murdoch songs, many familiar from his side project of the same name. Some are performed by the film’s cast; others are re-recorded or remixed versions of originals; and it’s this cobbled-together soundtrack that gives the movie a rehashed, jerky feeling. The aesthetic is further muddled by a similarly patchwork plot and a variable cast of young, largely unknown performers given little direction by the neophyte filmmaker.
Ultimately, we never really come to know Eve. Instead she remains a porcelain doll in Murdoch’s precious vision,with her friends merely enablers—always there to worry over her, praise her talent, glorify her looks. Her eating disorder is portrayed less as a real disease than as a routine symptom of sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, etc. When Eve abruptly leaves her promising band and slowly stabilizing life to attend music school in London, you can’t help but sense tough times ahead for her. That part of the story will happen off-camera, of course, and you can bet it won’t be set to music. Runs Fri., Sept. 12–Thurs., Sept. 18 at SIFF Cinema Uptown. Not rated. 111 minutes.