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The quirky musical God Help the Girl stars Hannah Murray, Olly Alexander and Emily Browning.

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3 out of 4 stars

Written by
Stuart Murdoch
Directed by
Stuart Murdoch
Starring
Emily Browning, Olly Alexander, Hannah Murray
Classification
14A
Language
English

Stuart Murdoch, I see what you've done here.

"If you want to hear your voice floating in the middle of a beautiful tapestry of frequencies," says a struggling young songwriter guy in Murdoch's not-half-bad-at-all musical film God Help the Girl, "you're going to need a pop group."

Brian Wilson couldn't have said it better, but the first-time filmmaker Murdoch says it pretty well, too.

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On the side, Murdoch is the chief songwriter for Belle and Sebastian, a Scottish twee-pop ensemble with a cult-like indie-music following but little mainstream traction. Now he has made a nearly touching film about a girl who needs saving and a trio of happenstance friends who form a band and wonder about the role of music and the aspirations of songwriters.

The girl in need of help is Eve, a hospitalized anorexic singer played by the dewy Australian actress Emily Browning (Sleeping Beauty). Eve is pop-star orientated. A song isn't heard until it's heard on the radio – the tree-falling-in-the-forest question – is the way she thinks.

The actor-musician Olly Alexander is James, a bookish songwriting asthmatic who befriends her in Glasgow. He breathes the indie-music, do-it-yourself spirit and believes in the religion of melody. "A man needs only one genius song, one song that lives forever in the hearts of the populace, to make him forever divine," James says.

Where he believes God decides on that song, Eve believes fate is determined by radio. As for real-life Murdoch, a successful musician without the success of a smash hit himself, he knows that God and radio are one and the same.

So this is a mediation on popular music within a semi-musical created by a good-natured songwriting cynic, Murdoch, whose 2006 Belle and Sebastian album was called The Life Pursuit and whose songs are just sing-alongable enough.

In a 2004 interview, he spoke about waking up one Sunday morning, looking at his watch and racing off to the church, hopefully in time. A variation of that scene happens with the character James in God Help the Girl.

As a filmmaker, Murdoch fiercely believes in unmistakable metaphors. Eve is struggling with her step into adulthood. James is a lifeguard. Will he save her? Yet that is James himself sitting alone on the diving board, mediating. Ready to make the leap?

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At one point, the three friends (including the fairly inconsequential Cass, played with third-wheel thinness by Hannah Murray) are canoeing. Are they a band? No, says James, they are "three people paddling a boat." Same thing.

God Help the Girl is about aspirations and goals, musical or otherwise. Murdoch is working some things out here, gracefully on the whole. His own band has toggled between frail sincerity and pop mastery itself over the years. The former is more endearing and original, but it's not for everyone. Which is how I might describe his film.

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