Hannah McGill: Small films with religious messages

Olly Alexander, Emily Browning and Hannah Murray in the film God Help the Girl, written and directed by Stuart Murdoch. Picture: Getty
Olly Alexander, Emily Browning and Hannah Murray in the film God Help the Girl, written and directed by Stuart Murdoch. Picture: Getty
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FANS AND detractors will have many a face-off about the new film musical God Help the Girl, written and directed by Stuart Murdoch, frontman of the iconic Scottish indie band Belle and Sebastian.

Already, reviewers have called Murdoch’s feature film debut “polished and poised”, “listless and dull”, “marvellous in almost every respect” and “disastrous”.

No real surprise there: those familiar with Murdoch’s songwriting oeuvre will know that it pretty much divides the world along lines of how much clever tweeness you can take. You’re winsome, you lose some. What might come up less in discussion of God Help the Girl is the degree to which it concerns itself with – well – God’s help. Is this a Christian film? And what if it is? “The Bible’s my tool,” trills our ravishing protagonist, named Eve, in the course of the film’s first song. Later on, she and a friend talk positively about going to church. But this element of the story is kept rather coyly in the background; and viewers of the film to date, even in an America somewhat obsessed with religious identities and divides (it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, in staunchly Mormon Utah), haven’t paid it much mind.

In his work with Belle and Sebastian, it’s not hard to see why the religious aspects of Murdoch’s lyrics often didn’t register as sincere. Ironic or downright blasphemous reappropriation of Christian imagery is so commonplace in rock music that fans would have been forgiven for expecting Belle and Sebastian to be as pulpit-averse as, say, The Jesus and Mary Chain. There’s traditionally limited crossover between practising God-botherers and the cynical, bookish indie kids who were the band’s original fanbase.

As Murdoch has said himself of his earlier life, “I didn’t see any other hipsters or punks at church.” Even once he had found fame and been upfront about his faith, people persisted in thinking he was just being wry, to the extent that Belle and Sebastian are still liable to pop up on internet lists of Bands You Didn’t Know Were Christian. “Christian rock” continues to be fairly artistically damning as a genre label, and although other relatively credible bands – Mumford and Sons, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Kings of Leon, The Hold Steady – might feature on those same lists, they’re not necessarily producing songs with upfront religious messages. As Paul Whitelaw put it in Just a Modern Rock Story, his book on Belle and Sebastian, “God into rock don’t go.”

Within Murdoch’s new context as an independent filmmaker, by contrast, a shift has been occurring of late. The faithful are filmmaking – and if they haven’t as yet produced anything of very much artistic note, conditions are being created in which such a thing could occur, and challenge the assumptions of those who are as resistant to the idea of a good film having God in it as certain indie kids are to getting a dose of faith with their music.

A resurgence of big-budget Biblical epics was widely reported when Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings were announced; but small, contemporary films with religious messages have also succeeded with an American Christian audience that considers itself ill-served by mainstream movies which favour flesh and firepower over improving moral messages, and indie ones that tend to treat religion as childhood trauma at best and blight at worst.

Some years ago, again at Sundance, I was watching a quirky indie comedy called Henry Poole is Here, starring Luke Wilson, when I realised a couple of things. One was that the film was very bad, which isn’t so unusual at Sundance. The other was that it was pretty devout, which is. Against the overwhelmingly secular, cynical, lefty-liberal backdrop of American indie’s favourite festival, the effect was near-exotic (though it didn’t make the film any better). Sundance hasn’t exactly had a conversion since, but subsequent American faith films have built a certain box office profile for their kind. 2010’s Letters to God was rewarded for having “prayer warriors” on-set by entering the US Top Ten.

More recently, the unsubtly-titled lies of God’s Not Dead And Heaven Is For Real (which strayed from the usual path of the faith film by featuring a name actor, Greg Kinnear) have won studio backing and done respectable business.

And if makers of religious films might once have laboured under the assumption that they were up against an overwhelmingly secular critical community, they can now be assured of finding fellow believers in high places. Britain’s best-known film critic, Mark Kermode, is both a lover of horror movies and a practising Christian. (“There’s no conflict,” he has said. “You don’t obsess with The Exorcist for 30 years unless you’re interested in religion.”)

Variety, by tradition studiously dispassionate, non-partisan and industry-focused in its critical position, now has a chief film critic, Justin Chang, who writes with his Christian faith to the fore. Of course, Chang isn’t guaranteed to be in sympathy with any old film that gives a bit of God, any more than I, as an atheist, agree with everything that drops out of Richard Dawkins. (“Foolish and heavy-handed”, Chang called the recent faith film Persecuted, leaving it without the consolation that it’s just being misunderstood by a non-believer). But his religious position informs his work in an open way. His review of the latest Woody Allen came to the conclusion that Allen’s lack of a spiritual perspective has left his work artistically bankrupt.

Agree or not, it’s a point of view that emphasises simply by its existence and prominence the fact that religion has had a circumscribed place in film culture and commentary, and that this fact could alter in years to come. While films like Heaven is For Real might still largely preach to the converted, God Help the Girl might just point to a new willingness to allow a flavour of faith into cool, contemporary narratives. Whether anyone notices that this particular film quietly leaves the church door is ajar is another matter.