It’s not hard to notice the similarities between God Help the Girl and We Are the Best! Each centres on a trio of solipsistic if sympathetic youngsters who combine to express their innermost feelings through the medium of music, forming a band together. Each film is essentially plotless, focusing more on mood and character than a three-act narrative. Most importantly, they have four word titles. The third word is ‘the.’
God Help the Girl has appeared in a couple of ‘best of’ lists for 2014, with both David Ehrlich and the AV Club featuring it in their countdowns. The film is written and directed by Stuart Murdoch, lead singer of Belle & Sebastian, and it’s exactly the kind of movie you’d expected the lead singer of a twee indie band to produce (note: I am contractually obligated to use the word ‘twee’ when reviewing God Help the Girl). Like a half-hearted concept album, it’s a collection of musical numbers loosely connected by a slender story (revolving around anorexia and self-expression).
Murdoch’s directorial debut has more substance to its narrative than We Are the Best!, but it feels intentionally insubstantial. There’s a lot to like about it. The cast – particularly Emily Browning – have a low-key waifish charm. The musical sequences are what you’d imagine Murdoch – who would’ve spent a lot of time making music videos – would produce: warm indie pop, colourful costumes (which I think are reminiscent of Jacques Demy, though I’ve yet to a Demy film) and seemingly random stylistic digressions. These interludes work; much of Murdoch’s subsequent experimentation does not, which weird editing and unnecessary flourishes. (Let’s iris in on a boat for no apparent reason! Here’s a sepia filter because I felt like it!)
We Are the Best! is, appropriately enough, the better film of the duo. Experienced Swedish director Lukas Moodysson stages the proceedings with an endearing, unobtrusive pseudo-realist style. The film lacks the verve of God Help the Girl’s musical sequences – its young teenage protagonists’ punk songs are defined more by energy than talent – but more than makes up for it with the memorable work of its three actresses (Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin and Liv LeMoyne). Where the anorexia arc of Murdoch’s film seemed a thin excuse to portray pretty, angsty young people, Moodysson commits to the ‘80s punk philosophy of his protagonists. We Are the Best! channels the inchoate anger of youth; it’s a little bit radical, a little bit feminist, a little bit queer, and a whole lot of awesome.