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Good girl gone bad

No pop aficionado could fail to recognise the fingerprints on this Scottish-based musical as those of Belle & Sebastian front man Stuart Murdoch.

Hannah Murray as Cassie, Olly Alexander as James and Emily Browning as Eve in God Help The Girl
Hannah Murray as Cassie, Olly Alexander as James and Emily Browning as Eve in God Help The Girl

Presaged by an album of the same name in 2009, Murdoch's film debut is unmistakable. His story centres on a young Australian woman struggling with depression and an eating disorder, who finds friendship, purpose and a sense of direction when she teams up with two fellow expats, from England, to form a band.

It starts with Eve (Emily Browning) in a Glasgow hospital, listening to two radio DJs chewing the cud about dead rock stars. (Voiced by real-life duo Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie, these two will pop up as a comic chorus on the airwaves throughout the film). She then opens a window, hops out, and starts singing straight to camera with the opening line, "I'm bored out of my mind".

Taking herself to the Barrowland, she witnesses the disastrous gig of wannabe singer-guitarist James (Olly Alexander), which abruptly ends with him exchanging punches with his own drummer. She and James strike up the rapport of lost souls. Months later, and further down the road to recovery, Eve again casually checks herself out of hospital and seeks out her new friend.

By this time she has started to find an emotional outlet in songwriting, with a style - bittersweet observational lyrics matched by catchy melodies, the whole coated in whimsy - not unlike that of Belle & Sebastian. Soon she, James and his young music student Cassie (Hannah Murray) decide to join forces. Music and friendship effectively combine as her new therapy.

This is the one of those musicals in which song and dance form a natural part of the narrative - in this case the life of the band, their songwriting, rehearsal and eventual performances, their songs capturing their feelings and concerns. And when their band isn't playing, Murdoch comfortably slips something on from the Belle & Sebastian back catalogue.

Browning is the most experienced of the young actors by far, with films as diverse as the special effects-laden, girl-power fantasy Sucker Punch and low-budget, sexually provocative Sleeping Beauty. She makes Eve testy and damaged, hinting at the latent turmoil that could scupper this muso-fantasy at any moment. At the same time she'll appeal to anyone - to be accurate, any man - who enjoys the short skirt and beret chic aesthetic. The actress also has that natural presence that maintains the sense, integral to the plot, that once this girl gets a hold on her life there'll be no stopping her.

James describes himself as having the "constitution of an abandoned rabbit", and Alexander gives him a sweet vulnerability; Cassie registers less strongly, as simply a teenager on an adventure that isn't likely to derail her, whatever happens.

Together they gallivant around Glasgow, from the Botanic Gardens to Central Station to the University, the city being made to look lovely, and more sympathetic than it usually does as the setting for innumerable stories of grit and criminality.

Murdoch has said that he's made this for and about young people, but it seems to me that he's needlessly limited himself. As it is, the film's emotional and dramatic tone certainly doesn't resonate beyond its inchoate personalities. Fans of Belle & Sebastian will be in seventh heaven; those immune will detect that the film is over-long, poorly paced and far too maudlin. From midway onwards, that opening line of Eve's adopts a new significance.

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