At some point about halfway through the film I found myself asking the screen in front of me, “What is this film even about?” There are two different films playing. One is a story (though a very incoherent one) of a young women suffering from anorexia finding her way back into the world through music. And then there is a collection of music videos about charming young people doing charming things. The only relation between the two is that the same characters are in them, but thematically and narratively they have nothing to do with each other. This is a film that you could fall asleep for a good portion of, and not miss anything of importance.
The plot follows a young woman, Eve (Emily Browning), who is being treated for anorexia and connects with a young guitar player James (Olly Alexander) and his guitar student Cassie (Hannah Murray). Together they form a band for the duration of the summer.
Stuart Murdoch is a musician, having made his bones in the band Belle and Sebastian, and a newcomer to filmmaking. It shows. The film deals with some heavy material in mental illness and eating disorders, except that it doesn’t. It’s an afterthought. An inclusion hardly more than referenced, hardly explored or discussed. It’s regarded in the same way that some regard clearing out their junkmail – a chore done as quickly as possible.
Moments of charm do pop up throughout, mainly thanks to the cast. Emily Browning gets – while not a lot – more to do than what Hollywood has offered her. She’s an effective screen presence even in a film as mindless as this. Olly Alexander has a winning complexion, and excels at playing an unintimidating sweetheart. Hannah Murray is always a delight to watch, and is enjoying her time spent on this film. There is real talent on camera here between the main trio, it’s just a shame Murdoch doesn’t know what to do with them.
At their best (which is mediocre), the musical scenes play reminiscent of Richard Lester’s work. Lester’s hap-hazard docu-drama type of song and dance filming in A Hard Day’s Night, Help! and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was revolutionary back then and still engaging today. If the same style is taking place, then what’s the difference between Lester and Murdoch, between then and now? One was a filmmaker, and one is trying to be.
In between the musical portions, there’s quite a lot of talking about absolutely nothing at all. Hardly any character exploration takes place, nothing is said that moves the film in any effective direction, and very few holds emotion. They try to dress it up with dialogue that might be quirky if it wasn’t so mindlessly thrown together. For example, “I’ve got the constitution of an abandoned rabbit.” Imagine meaningless drivel like that for 90 minutes of it’s near 2-hour run time.
As a critic I’m supposed to avoid crude and simplistic thinking, but sometimes simplicity is the best descriptor: This film looks like shit. A good 60-75% of the film is drenched in grain, and bares the mark of someone who doesn’t know how to use a light meter. Grain can be a powerfully evocative tool for modern filmmakers, and one imagines the grain is meant to evoke memories of Murdoch’s past, of a place and time gone by. The problem is that just about every construct of the film is so incoherently pieced together that there’s not much of a memory of a time or place to fall back on. While watching this film, I realized why it was specifically that I never got into Belle and Sebastian: aside from a few moments of charm, there’s just not much going on there.