Saudade was the word I was grasping for while watching God Help the Girl, the first film by Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch, based on a concept album he released a few years back. I couldn’t remember the word precisely (it’s Portuguese), but anybody who’s ever Googled “nostalgia for a time you never existed in” has eventually come across saudade – far more lyrical than the Reddit-suggested “faux-stalgia.” Of course, the film is faux; who breaks into song and dance in real life? And yet: Wouldn’t the world be so much sunnier if we did?
The setting is contemporary Glasgow, but its trio of late teens making music during one defining summer might as well be bussed in from Sixties Mod cinema. (They’ve got the knack, no question about it.) Newly hatched from the hospital after treatment for depression and an eating disorder, Eve (Browning) is a bangs-and-bob musical prodigy who forms a band with her best friends, gloomy James (Alexander) and kind, unfocused Cassie (Murray). James carries a major torch for Eve, but he’s locked in the friend zone while she snogs some jerky French rocker, in a romantic arithmetic problem that occasions many endearing pop songs. Murdoch translates to the letter his lyrics into dramatic staging (if somebody sings about getting on a train, we’re gonna see that train being boarded), and there’s something about its Sesame Street-like literalness, combined with the student-film aesthetic (unpolished, exuberant), that makes God Help the Girl so very cheering.
In hospital, Eve is coached to master the basics (food, water, sleep) before exploring her creative life, but the film makes a strong argument that a song can save your life. God Help the Girl could stand for a little more story and a little less song – Murdoch is always rushing to get to the next number, which is a shame, because the stuff in between is clever and telling (there’s a howlingly funny moment when two malnourished musicians take off their glasses before throwing punches). Still, Murdoch is a brilliant songsmith, and he rightly identifies his strongest suit. In Browning, he’s found an expert conduit. She’s got heartbreak-pretty pipes that recall Austin chanteuse Kat Edmonson, and a luscious face that shames Anna Karina’s famed cheekbones. Just as James and Cassie are drawn moth-to-flame to Eve, the film wouldn’t work without Browning as its beacon.
Murdoch shot the picture on Super 16, a lovely grainy thing that’s nearing obsolescence; it’s no wonder that a film stock so associated with home movies would put the audience in a pleasingly melancholy mind. But as I rolled saudade on my tongue some more, then did the math to remember when Belle & Sebastian was on heavy play in my own life – the early 20s, when low-wage jobs were routinely ignored to go day-drink and have an adventure – that feeling of intangible nostalgia clicked into place. Murdoch’s film is sweet monument to that age, when life had the promise of a perfectly crafted pop song. God Help the Girl is not so perfectly crafted, but the promise – oh, the promise is irresistible.
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