SCREEN — Rock, girls and mental illness anchor concept film

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God Help the Girl, the debut film by Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch, screened at RiverRun International Film Festival earlier this month.

by Jordan Green

Following its world premiere at Sundance and subsequent screenings at the Berlin International Film Festival and South by Southwest, the debut film by Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch made a pit-stop in Winston-Salem last week as part of RiverRun Film Festival.

The film secured a US distributor in February, and its theater release is expected later this year.

Based on a song cycle composed by Murdoch for a hand-picked girl group, a record of the same name, God Help the Girl, was released in 2009.

“All the time I was touring with Belle & Sebastian and working with Belle & Sebastian I was putting aside songs that were for certain characters,” Murdoch has said in a promotional video. “And it wasn’t until about a year ago that I realized that all these songs were sung by two, maybe three characters and why don’t I string them together to form the backbone of a musical narrative?”

The film begins with Eve, played by Emily Browning, a young woman coping with an eating disorder in a Glasgow mental institution, while clinging to life through her appreciation of a pair of pop DJs on the radio. Over the course of the summer, Eve’s institutionalization continues intermittently, and on leave she meets James, a gentle soul with definitive notions about music and, through him, Cassie, a fitful music student.

As any music aficionado knows, stringing together a collection of songs into a concept album is a risk that can result in either artistic brilliance or an overwrought mess. That the album not only succeeds artistically, but that Murdoch was also able to build a coherent cinematic narrative around it for this musical feature film is nothing short of impressive.

Murdoch’s screenplay nicely captures the casual wit of young creative types, and the three lead actors, Hannah Murray, an alum of British TV show “Skins,” and Olly Alexander, take to it with aplomb. The acting by the three leads gently spins a fine garment of their growing friendships. A latent romantic yearning between Eve and James remains unrealized, fortunately for the story, allowing the finer points of the friendships to shine and providing a throughline of narrative tension. It’s one of many ways that the film is charming without being insincere.

The film seesaws between the drab reality of the mental institution and the playful afterglow world forged by three young people learning about themselves through their connections with each other.

It’s to Murdoch and his actors’ credit that the drama is understated. The film treats the subject of mental illness with a sense of care and gentleness that invites the viewer’s understanding rather than invoking pathos for its own sake. By slowing down the action and filtering the characters’ experiences though a kind of dream state, the fragile state of these young people’s lives comes into focus. It would be easy to present the characters in a superficial and contradictory light, but God Help the Girl engenders empathy.

Notwithstanding Eve, James and Cassie’s various shortcomings, their determination to start a band, philosophical arguments over music and gentle teasing exudes a zest for life that runs beneath the narrative.

When Eve meets James, he has recently gotten the worse part of a fight with his drummer during an ill-fated gig. But between Eve and James, he is the wiser and more assured of the two, and takes on the role of protective big brother.

It doesn’t hurt that the three characters’ fumbling experimentation with young adulthood plays out against a gorgeous cycle of songs.

The film deftly demonstrates the power of music: Seniors at a dance transform into their younger selves before the viewers’ eyes in one scene, while in another the music underscores a tragic undertow of despair that threatens to derail Eve’s recovery.

As the film progresses, Eve moves inexorably towards restoration. We don’t know if James’ insistence on jealously guarding his creative integrity and conviction that all the great records have already been made will cause him to retreat or to live with greater resolve. His hypersensitivity conveys affection but also a sense of comedic pretension.

“And though it might sound blasphemous,” he says, “I saw myself as John the Baptist, and Eve was my Christ.”

Over the top, yes, but you better believe that when you were young, if you possessed any soul at all, letting go of a true friend could affect you just as deeply.