On the very top level–the frosting of the cupcake, if you will–“God Help the Girl” is a musical about a Manic-Depressive Pixie Dream Girl and her nebbishy love interest. It was written and directed by Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch, and it is so twee it twinkles, almost two hours of Emily Browning’s giant eyes and sugared voice and insistent suffering, and there were times when I hated it.
But beneath that thick super-sweet frosting, this is a subtle film about the stories we tell about our suffering, and what, if anything, we can count on when we fail ourselves once again.
“GHTG” opens with Eve (Browning) listening to the local radio hosts on her giant headphones, and then sneaking out of the mental hospital where she’s been receiving treatment for what is fairly quickly revealed to be depression and anorexia. She goes to a show which turns into a bit of a shambles, and has a meet-cute subway encounter with the sad-sack singer who kept getting drowned out by the drums. James (Olly Alexander) falls for this tumbleweed angel, of course (“I like your knees,” it’s that kind of movie), and she lives with him for a while. She makes music and makes a friend (the charming Hannah Murray in an underwritten third-wheel role), and they all live sincerely and youthfully–until Eve’s pill supply dwindles and she starts to feel her edges sharpening again.
A musical is always going to be aggressively stylized. It’s a form which requires optimism about human connection: We have to understand one another at least well enough to harmonize for two and a half minutes. This particular musical knows just how much it’s candy-coating loneliness, abandonment and depression. Eve’s wistful, meandering, mostly rhymeless songs spin her pain into cotton candy. All her damage becomes cute.
But here’s the thing: Why can’t damaged people see their damage as cute sometimes? Eve listens to the radio hosts discussing the way fans of harder-edged, more bluntly downbeat bands like Joy Division made a fetish out of madness and suffering. “There is a mystique. They did lose one along the way,” a host says, alluding to singer Ian Curtis’s suicide. “Unless you’ve lost one… you’re not really rock and roll.” This voiceover suggests that candy-coating your pain may be artificial, but so is “rock and roll” expression of pain. Both are romanticized, turned into a genre and a look. All our attempts to grapple with pain are artificial; nothing’s more poignantly human than artifice.
It’s not just that “GHTG” whistles so loudly through the graveyard that you’re basically compelled to look at the graves. The movie is doing something deeper than mere irony. It’s suggesting, I think, that viewing your life and your pain as an indie musical may help heal you.
Early on in the movie Eve’s therapist shows her a drawing of the Maslow hierarchy, and explains that we need to take care of the lowest level–food, sleep–before we can even begin to address our needs for “art, morality, music.” “GHTG,” by contrast, suggests that only these top-level forms of joy (or even worship) make it possible for us to care enough to eat and sleep like the doctors say we should. The soft, drifty tweeness of it all, the aggressive romanticizing, the synchronized hand-claps: These are anchors of hope, acts of faith. If beauty isn’t coming to save the world, maybe prettiness will.
That strikes me as acute psychology: The genre in which we think we’re living really can affect both our mental health and our spiritual well-being. Some people need to live in metaphors of surrender, others in metaphors of liberation. And maybe–I am conceding this through gritted teeth–maybe some people need to live in candy-floss guitar pop with transparent, sincere lyrics.
Lots of people have noticed that the title pays off. We do get a lot of God talk and Jesus imagery in this film. And when you see how pivotal God is to this narrative you’ll wonder why people talk about “deus ex machina” like it’s a bad thing.
James goes to church to sort himself out. I wish we saw him there; I wish we saw what he found there, whether it was a big dark echoing space of smoke and color, or a small white room full of guitars and waving hands. But we get a sharper picture of Christian faith when Eve goes to a Christian healer. She herself doesn’t believe–and yet during the session she finds herself repeating, “I want to be better; I want to get well.” That is maybe the hardest movement of the human soul–the movement to wanting to get well–and in this movie the push comes from above.
The whole portrayal of this Christian healing session is sincere: Eve’s vision of Jesus is as real as anything in this tight-POV movie. In the aftermath, she tells James, “A few days later, I began to feel much worse. Seriously panicked.” But now, “I feel… different. Like she cleaned me out somehow.”
The movie’s closing songs and images stress independence. (That’s a relief, when several scenes earlier seemed to linger greasily on Eve’s undressed dependence.) Eve sings that she’ll “forgive myself and eat,” with a hilariously symbolic apple.
I think you could read this as a story of faith reduced to therapy: Jesus is useful. But that would be unfair to a nuanced movie. When all else fails Eve, when friends are gone and she’s grabbing blindly at anything which might heal or even just relieve the pain for a little while, the nets which catch her are music and her own ability to believe in herself and in her dreams. But by that point in the movie we’ve been told several times that both of these saving powers are gifts from God. That undercuts the independence/self-reliance imagery a lot, and makes the movie deeper both psychologically and theologically. (Here is a super-spoilerous take on the movie’s religious imagery which shaped my own reading of it.)
This movie wasn’t made for me. I fully admit that if its hyper-stylized, slickly optimistic genre had been ’80s pop/New Wave rather than whatever Belle and Sebastian does, I would adore this and watch it a million times. (Come to think of it I did do that back when it was “Grosse Pointe Blank,” which was much more handwavey, secular, and disingenuous than this flick, not that I care.) And intellectually I can acknowledge that self-forgiveness is a real thing many people need to do and struggle to do; emotionally I’ll always find it kind of skyhooks. (The bit about music always being there for you I’ll cosign, though I may have a darker take on that than “GHTG.”) The parts of Christianity which are easiest for me to grasp are the parts about the insufficiency of self-forgiveness. But self-forgiveness can also (maybe?) be the first step out of the prison of self-hatred.
“God Help the Girl” is a smart, powerful little flick. Sometimes I hated it. But I won’t forget it.