All the Real Girls
Reviewed in April 2003
Director: David Gordon Green. Cast: Paul Schneider, Zooey Deschanel, Patricia Clarkson, Shea Whigham, Benjamin Mouton, Danny McBride, Maurice Compte, Bartow Church, Maya Ling Pruitt. Screenplay: David Gordon Green.
For Amanda, who I wish had seen this movie with me, and for Amber, who was rooting for it.

Photo © 2003 Sony Pictures Classics
David Gordon Green's career remains one of the more interesting experiments in contemporary American film. His last picture, George Washington, was a genuine anomaly of our cinema: a truly self-realized creation that was made on a shoestring without any sacrifice in visual splendor, and a mournful mood piece that dwelled on rural anomie, racial and economic castes, and death among the innocent without preaching or screaming or dissertating about any of it. In its remarkable willingness to forego narrative momentum, the star system, or even a clear protagonist, George Washington is perhaps too willing to renounce the typical pleasures of moviegoing. The picture is so independent, it is almost independent from itself, and the last half-hour seems to fade right into the screen. Subsequent viewings confirm all my pleasurable memories of the film, but they also remind me that this fondness takes shape more in the head than the heart. I still recommend the movie frequently, but I prepare to commiserate with those who wanted a little more from it.

Three years later, George Washington is a Criterion-certified DVD, and Green's second picture, titled All the Real Girls, was a Sundance hot ticket. Green seems to be catching on, and perhaps as a consequence, he now has a few tools on his belt that he didn't the first time: boutique studio backing (Sony Pictures Classics has distributed the film domestically), a handful of semi-recognizable faces (though when your marquee performer is Patricia Clarkson, you've hardly sold out), and a beginning/middle/end arc that follows a rapturous romance that starts sweet, burns hot, and dies out. Tim Orr repeats as Green's cinematographer, and once again, one of the new film's glories are its landscape inserts and atmospheric cutaways. A month after seeing the film, a five-second shot of a two-legged dog walking pitifully in the dust is my sharpest memory, mostly because the shot does not seem positioned for any heavy-handed metaphoric purpose. The sadness inherent in the spectacle resonates with the depressed local climate but does not represent it outright. By the same token, Green's characters are a hardscrabble bunch with unenviable jobs, born of necessity, but they are not maimed creatures; they simply have the gift, also born of necessity, of living comfortably among the crippled and the broken-down.

That said, the tenor of All the Real Girls verges less toward the sociological than George Washington did. We are unmistakably in the presence of a love story, enriched and imbued with local color, but plunging with no trace of irony or abashedness into the scrappy, "universal" palette of a youthful love that precedes adult experience. The movie begins with a hushed moment between the lovers, Noel (Deschanel) and Paul (GW's Paul Schneider), that is characterized by the wistful lighting and puppyish dialogue which remain Girls' tonal touchstones. You know right away whether this movie is for you or not; any viewer intolerant of saccharine declaration, even when tempered by palpable sadness and minor-key chords, should follow his or her instincts right out the door. But for enthusiastic or at least susceptible audiences, Green shows a delicate, truthful touch in developing a story that flirts perpetually with preciousness. The whispers and awkward intimacy in Noel's bedroom, the scuffles between Paul and his jealous buddies (including Noel's brother, played by Tigerland's Shea Whigham), the muted, impulsive hilarity of a shared hot tub, and the tense gangliness of the couple's first long-distance phone call are all rendered with poignancy and the just the right dash of inevitability—we sense from the outset that the regional perfume of sadness is too powerful not to waft over this union.

I was sufficiently taken in by all this to enjoy All the Real Girls a good deal. Yet, in a direct repeat of my George Washington experiences, I could feel myself straining to love a film that in actuality I merely liked. The film invests so hugely in the possibility of profound love—profound even if (especially if?) the love melts away—that any displeasure or impatience with All the Real Girls is bound to provoke guilt and self-critique. Am I too cynical, too hardened for this film? Is it possible to sense how obviously Green intends to crack the jadedness of contemporary culture and not feel, at the very second Girls starts to feel forced or self-mythologizing, that I myself am jaded, unreachable?

These questions are not for me to answer, though it's hard to know who else could answer them. In any case, Girls did begin, if not to wear out its welcome, then at least to feel a tad too quixotic to keep me in its grip. Though I never broke outright from the film's enticements, key details and dimensions grew repetitious or tiresome: pace seemed to sag even as narrative incident increased (Noel betrays, vanishes, reappears), the music score passed from plaintive to mildly perturbing, and even those landscape inserts at which Green and Orr excel threatened to feel like consolation prizes for a stalled story. The platitudes in the dialogue are hardly accidental—Green has made a film not about true love but about the dizzy, fretful, sometimes silly lunges we take at it—but both the agony and the ecstasy get a little thick. As with George Washington, which I have seen many more times, I couldn't possibly describe the last shot or even the least sequence of All the Real Girls. Green's films don't exactly end, they just cease being.

In this respect, Girls also mirrors Deschanel's performance style, here and elsewhere. This limpid, wide-eyed misfit has a knack for finding a perfect pitch for her acting while her fellows in the ensemble are still feeling their way around. In Almost Famous, which Green probably adored, Deschanel's early scenes as the protagonist's coltish, outward bound sister felt grounded and real in a film that was still huffing to pull itself together (a goal never, in fact, achieved). In last year's The Good Girl, to which All the Real Girls feels and even titularly sounds like a more lived-in improvement, Deschanel's frisky boredom as a retail drone was narrower but sharper than Jennifer Aniston's blurry, uneven performance. Now once again, as Noel, Deschanel is a memorable spirit, spunky at moments but at one in her heart with her quiet, furrowed community. But a funny thing happens to Zooey halfway through the picture, something that's happened to her before—the film seems to fall a little in love with her, and the filmmaker begins to showcase rather than actually direct her performance. Thus, Deschanel's closing scenes are among her weakest: some climactic apologies and accusations flung between her and Paul Schneider on a playground bear the tinny echoes of undisciplined improvisation.

Schneider, perhaps because he is a less experienced actor and less immediately ingratiating performer than Deschanel, starts out slower but lasts better than she does. The picture, in any case, belongs really to him. When the characters separate, it is on Paul's side that Green remains, in practical if not ethical terms, and it is Paul's family circle—Clarkson as his restless mother Elvira, Benjamin Mouton (The Whole Wide World) as his world-weary uncle Leland—that make the most potent impressions in the supporting cast, brief though they are. Clarkson, adding to her evolving portfolio of stolen scenes, manages not just to survive but to dignify a scene where she cries in clown's makeup.

One question with which I am left after All the Real Girls, as I was after George Washington, is what exactly I wish Green would do to answer the reservations I have about his style. I suppose that in part I wish this artist would hew more closely to narrative principles, or refine the performances of his cast, or reach for a mood that expanded or departed from the winsome melancholy that defines his work so far. I wish, too, I could shake the feeling that Green's screenplays are written in marbled, wide-ruled Composition Books where nothing is crossed out, and even the most jejune marginalia are respected and included as an honest part of the total imagining. I know my qualms about George and Girls have their seeds in these sensations—and yet I question myself more than I do him, because hardly anyone is making movies like Green is, or even seems to want to. All the Real Girls is immediately traceable to the artist who has made it, and it is hard to overstate the tingling refreshment of a film that stays loyal, at whatever cost, to its own voice. Even better, that voice is unique and illuminating, and its costs are comparatively tiny. So, despite myself, I hope David Gordon Green keeps doing what he's doing—especially if, through practice, he does it just the slightest bit better. B+


Awards:
Sundance Film Festival: Special Jury Prize for Emotional Truth; Special Jury Prize (Clarkson; also cited for Pieces of April and The Station Agent)

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