Thursday, September 18, 2014


Is there a talented young actress who has been in more well-intentioned misfires than Emily Browning? From Zack Snyder’s muddled metaphorical Sucker Punch to Julia Leigh’s misguided objectification parable Sleeping Beauty to Brad Silberling’s good, but franchise-nonstarter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Browning has an admirable adventurousness in selecting projects. It’s too bad that the final products can’t live up to the artistic impulses behind them. But even in bad movies, she’s good. She’s too compelling a screen presence to go unnoticed, with her small frame, wide eyes, and an ability to slip easily between controlled intensity and cool passivity, often drawing attention even as a film might crumble around her.

God Help the Girl has her latest lead role in a misfire, though it’s not as spectacularly failed as some of her other films. It has its charms. This is a sweet and simple little indie rock musical written, directed, and scored by Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian. It casts Browning as a Scottish girl hospitalized for mental problems, including an eating disorder revealed in a startling shot as she stands on a scale, her sides tight against her ribcage. She escapes from the institution into the welcoming arms of a maybe-love-interest, a benignly friendly shaggy-haired guitar-playing young guy (Olly Alexander). Together, they meet another musical young person, a sweet girl with a nice voice (Hannah Murray). The aimless trio decides to form a band.

There’s not much to the story beyond the shuffling coming-of-age, self-discovery, puppy-love, let’s-put-on-a-show tropes it so delicately and simply deploys. To Murdoch’s credit, his directorial debut showcases (with cinematographer Giles Nuttgens) a fine eye for sun-dappled imagery and an even finer light touch when it comes to plotting. He’s not hitting the emotional beats too terribly hard, trusting in his music and his performers to get the idea across. It’s structured around simply staged musical sequences in which the actors turn towards the camera and pose in twee music video blocking as they sing fragile, melancholy melodies that lilt pleasurably. The songs have twinkling sing-song patter stuffed with wordy syncopation and spacey hippies-by-way-of-Hallmark metaphors.

These plaintive moments of emotion and connection through musicality, with characters twirling their way through soft, colorful sets, are gently strung together with wisps of narrative. Little happens by way of plot, Murdoch preferring to hang out with the characters as they fumble towards quiet revelations and sweet connections. That’s fine in theory, but in practice the characters are so undercooked that the flavor of those endless moments turns out fairly bland. Scenes of conversation and montage exist only to get us to the next musical number.

In song, it is best, but the longer we poke around in the limp drama and mumbly dialogue, the more the movie’s modest charms slip away. If you’re as starved for new musicals as I am, these sweet, forgettable tunes might be worth it. But I couldn’t shake the feeling of disappointment as the movie failed to cohere into something greater than the sum of its notes.

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