Review: GOD HELP THE GIRL Is Sweet but Never Saccharine

God Help the Girl is a sweet indie pop musical about a girl in recovery from a severe eating disorder. The girl in question, Eve, is played by Emily Browning, a lovely young actress who has been in some really crap movies (as well as the great A Series of Unfortunate Events). When we first meet Browning she is sneaking out to go to a rock show in Glasgow, singing the first of the movie’s songs, “Act of the Apostle,” about her trip. After the concert she meets James (Olly Alexander), whose disastrous set ended in a fight with his own drummer. Alexander realizes that she is too weak to get home on her own steam and helps her back to the clinic where she is being treated for anorexia. When she leaves, she seeks him out, and they become the best of friends.

The musical was written and directed by Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian and features songs from the band and from Murdoch’s album God Help the Girl, as well as original compositions. It is an incredibly charming movie. Murdoch’s songs have always told stories, and they work seamlessly as expressions from Eve, James, and their friend Cassie (Hannah Murray). I bought the album in 2009, but the story added depth and dimension to the long familiar songs. The use of “A Down and Dusky Blonde” was particularly heartbreaking and made God Help the Girl the most emotionally resonant film I saw at Sundance.

The casting is fantastic. Browning comes off as both brave and fragile, and as a viewer you are equal parts rooting for her and worried about her. Alexander is one of the most fanciable boys I have ever seen on screen. Sweet and sensitive and devoted, he is an indie teenaged girl’s dream. His chemistry with Browning is great, and the audience yearns for them to get together almost as much as he does. They are joined by Murray, an actress I have liked since she made her debut on Skins as Cassie, a quirky, eating disordered waif. Murray is again playing a character named Cassie, but this one is posh and a bit daffy and wholly well. She rounds out the trio and provides a welcome balance to the heavier Browning-Alexander relationship.

Part of the delight of the film is the look of it —  cool vintage costumes and candy-colored cinematography. It’s quirky and fun, but not precious or twee, which is an accomplishment. And of course, the songs are sweet and funny and charming, which is good, because they are the heart of the movie, deepening the audience’s investment in the central relationship, which doesn’t follow the typical course. The ending is something that I always say I wish more movies had the courage to do — it is organic and right for the characters — but it is heartbreaking in the best possible way. 

God Help the Girl opens in select theaters and on VOD Friday, September 5. I've included the trailer below, and you can watch a clip here.

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