god help the girl (she needs all the help she can get)
God Help the Girl is the first movie I can clearly recall seeing after moving to New York. (I moved on September 1st; the movie opened at Village East Cinemas on the 5th.) I’ve been back to Village East Cinemas a few times since then, and maybe it’s just because I’ve never been seated in the same theater again, but it’s stuck in my memory as a singular experience. Around the same time the year previously, I’d done the same thing — moved to a new place where I knew no one — and I’d used movies as a way of grounding myself then, too, a way of removing myself from the anxieties of being completely alone in a city with a million other people in it.
At the time, I remember the rational part of my brain being pretty neutral about the movie. Even now if you ask me what I think about it, I’ll tell you I think it’s alright, just alright. But I also remember walking out of the theater feeling distinctly like everything was going to be okay. At face value, maybe that’s not the most ringing endorsement for a movie, but I mean it as high praise. I didn’t care for half of the plot and sort of resented the aesthetic portrayal of being a young person striking out on their own, so twee and perfect, and so different from my own experience of just trying to get by, but then there was that not-quite-happy ending, and there were those songs.
Written by Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian, the songs are evocative of the music of the 60s, all of them relatively upbeat and written primarily in major keys but with the kind of twist that, to me, makes it impossible to classify them as happy tunes. (For example, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, and the oeuvre of Roy Orbison, so loved by David Lynch.) Three songs stand out to me: 1. the titular “God Help the Girl,” 2. “The Psychiatrist is In,” and 3. “I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie.” With lyrics like:
I was an ace when I was young
I learned to dance, I didn’t have to learn
I was a case when I grew up
A case of hope crashing to the ground
I learned, I hit the skids, and I woke up
Me, myself, and I was a different person
it’s the melodies that keep these songs from being litanies of woes. They take on the tones of intimate conversations instead, a vocalization of the things we think but never say, conveying anxieties and aches from learning to live alone to unmet expectations. It’s within the unique purview of the musical to be able to communicate through two different languages — music and lyrics — and God Help the Girl serves up the perfect mix (mixtape?).
I’ve always had a weakness for musical movies. My parents have told me that the first movie I ever saw in theaters was The Lion King, the first movie that I have any memory of is Amadeus, and there are more than a few movies that I objectively know are not very good, but I love because of the music featured in them. The music in God Help the Girl is near perfect to the point that, as explained, it blitzed every qualm I had with the movie. There isn’t a single track that doesn’t, in some form, perfectly capture what it’s like to deal with not knowing where your life is going, and feeling young and old at the same time.
It’s strange trying to talk about adolescence when you’re in your twenties. You can’t say that you’re in it, because you’re not, but you’re not old enough to say that it’s completely behind you, either. For instance, you can start stories with, “when I was young,” but that doesn’t discount the fact that you still are young. (To wit, from “The Psychiatrist is In”: grow up, you’re nearly 25 / what happened when you were a child?) I can’t say now as to whether that’s a feeling you ever grow out of, but just hearing someone else talk (or in this case, sing) about it is a tremendous comfort. Being uncertain of the future isn’t as daunting as it used to be, and being nostalgic for the past doesn’t seem as silly as it used to be, either.
At the end of the movie, the main character leaves. The resolution of the love story, which had struck me up until that point as trite, is that she chooses not to pursue it. Or rather, she chooses to pursue herself: her dreams and her own well-being. It’s a fitting conclusion to a story whose songs refuse the typical happy ending, and also a reminder that change and letting go are not always bad things.
In the year or so that has passed, I’ve come back to God Help the Girl a number of times. I’ve only rewatched it all once, but I’ve revisited certain scenes several times and I keep its soundtrack in constant rotation. For all that has changed in the last year, I still worry about the same things that I did when I first moved, and just as it had the first time I watched it, God Help the Girl helps to soothe those anxieties and remind me that I’m not alone in trying to figure things out. Movies are a shared experience, but also deeply subjective; similarly, I can’t connect to everything in God Help the Girl, but growing up is something we all do.
So, at the risk of being too cutesy, though maybe it’s fitting considering the movie that’s the subject here: god help the girl, she needs all the help she can get.