I genuinely look forward to seeing filmmaker David Gordon
Green’s next project. Why? Because I can’t recommend
Green is the writer/director of George Washington,
his first film, which landed him on various high-profile top
10 lists, including Roger Ebert’s. Like All The
Real Girls, it featured young people growing up in tough
conditions in contemporary North Carolina. Its fantastic,
unique cast of totally convincing African-American pre-teens,
beautiful widescreen cinematography, and sophisticated compositional
style make it well worth seeing.
In All The Real Girls Paul (Schneider), a 20-something
white man, still lives at home with his mother and works a
lowly mill job in his small North Carolina town. His romantic
life lacks depth—he beds young women and then dumps them.
When he meets his best friend Tip’s sister Noel (Deschanel),
an 18-year-old virgin who has just graduated from a girl’s
school, they form a more intimate, vulnerable, “real” relationship
than he has ever had before. Where will the relationship go?
Friends and family have their doubts about Paul’s ability
to sustain the love affair without disastrous results.
About 20 minutes into All The Real Girls, I began
to feel restless—could it be a wave of empathy coming on?
“Perhaps,” I thought, “I am experiencing the emotions of the
characters—poor young men and women struggling to reach maturity
via their first serious relationships, gnashing their teeth
in their eagerness to escape their small-minded, small town
Alas, it was only one of the familiar symptoms that signals
the onset of crusty critic syndrome. I found myself impatiently
chomping popcorn during “improvisational” scenes as earnest
actors, doing their damnedest to appear realistic, carefully
“stumbled” over their words to mimic spontaneous conversation.
And I barely stifled my groans at the inevitable parade of
grungy diners, cheap motels, and what felt like a condescending
use of local color—the inevitable appearance of the working
poor and down-home eccentrics captured in their native milieu.
I am no fan of vacuous verisimilitude.
Movies about “real life”! God only knows there is a true
need for as many onscreen explorations of the human condition
as we can get. But I would prefer to avoid cinema that is
in servitude to such deadly, indie sincerity. Compare All
The Real Girls to George Washington’s amateur
cast and small town locations—poignant, poetic, and without
condescension for its characters or locale. What I can’t understand
is how the same filmmaker and crew made both films.
All The Real Girls was actually scripted before George
Washington, when Green was a student at the North Carolina
School for the Arts. Green co-wrote it with his friend Paul
Schneider, who, perhaps not coincidentally, plays “Paul” onscreen,
and describes the film’s unfortunate genesis: “…We both got
dumped by girls we were madly in love with. We were completely
depressed and we just sat in my room listening to the most
melancholy music we could find. Trying to find a way out,
we decided to write a love story…” Green claimed to want to
tell a “believable and effective story about young people
in love.” Originality was already hopelessly out the window.
All The Real Girls bears all the real markings of
a film school project by guys for guys whose idea of maturity
is outgrowing the need for one-night stands in favor of “serious”
relationships. How can we tell Paul is really in love? He
refuses to deflower Noel when they spend the night together
at a motel because he cares for her so much. Surely this is
a sign of his spiritual growth! In this type of sensitive
man-boy saga, when the “pure” woman turns out to have some
dangerous sexual tendencies that ultimately threaten the relationship,
you can tell she’s “changed” because she spontaneously cuts
her shoulder-length hair into a short, stylish bob.
That’s right, this is the Southern male equivalent of the
much maligned “chick flick.” Let’s call it the “hick hack
Huck” film. Do we really want to ride down this river again?
In addition to its emphasis on yet another young white man’s
painfully slow journey over murky waters to maturity, All
The Real Girls includes Southern cinematic staples such
as poor white trash, a three-legged dog, rusting trains, cotton
mills, and the inevitable child with a mental or physical
Incredibly almost the exact elements, right down to the corroded
locomotives, appeared in George Washington. The telling
difference is that that film was about black children, not
tiresome young adults. There was even a better and vastly
more convincing love story, between a twelve and a thirteen
year old. What seemed fresh in that movie seems clichéd here
as Green attempts to display one man’s journey into adulthood.
The truth is I would be happy to see this genre retired from
independent film for good so I don’t have to witness yet another
of these tedious young men’s “coming of age” stories. This
may really represents someone’s actual process of maturation,
but it doesn’t follow that an important or satisfying film
will result. What movies like this represent is an outdated
male rite of passage using cinema as proof of developmental
progression. It is time to evolve.
George Washington combined lyrical editing, lush widescreen
cinematography that loves the light (courtesy of cinematographer
Tim Orr), lovely framing, and a truly realistic cast.
The movie is a vibrant experience. The rich cinematography
and Green’s great feel for composition remain in All The
Real Girls, although they feel more formalistic, more
constrained. Otherwise, this movie wants to teach us
about experience. As a result, it loses out on being one,
and that’s why it’s a hack job—a sophisticated indie hack
job, but a hack job nonetheless.
I am being tough on what was undoubtedly an artifact born
of real affection, a tribute to Green’s own developmental
journey as a filmmaker. Given the incredible pressures of
financing, realizing, and distributing any feature in today’s
marketplace, offering harsh words to projects made with difficulty
and with love is not my preferred mode. However, there’s no
need for Green to regress and join the “Hick Hack Huck” indie
boys club. He was already far beyond it when he made George