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All The Real Girls (R)
Sony Pictures Classics
Official Site
Director: David Gordon Green
Producers: Jean Doumanian and Lisa Muskat
Written by: David Gordon Green and Paul Schneider
Cast: Paul Schneider, Zooey Deschanel, Patricia Clarkson, Benjamin Mouton, Danny McBride, Shea Whigham

Rating: out of 5

I genuinely look forward to seeing filmmaker David Gordon Green’s next project. Why? Because I can’t recommend this one.

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 lives!”

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 disability.

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 Washington.

—Ellen Whittier


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