Monday, February 23, 2009
Having seen all but Undertow, I'm just about ready to name David Gordon Green as my favorite modern director. He combines Terrence Malick's visual acuity and his dialectic narratives with a focus on the normal day-to-day of people, creating films that do not adhere necessarily to the visual style of cinema verité (i.e. he doesn't follow his actors around like a documentarian) but arguably feel far more real. With his superb debut George Washington, he established himself as a name to watch, and his follow-up All the Real Girls only confirmed his position as one of America's most vibrant young filmmakers.
As with George Washington, All the Real Girls charts the lives of a small group of friends growing up in the South as they try to figure out what they want from life through semi-philosophical musings that somehow never seem out of place coming from the mouths of uneducated kids. Though the main characters in George Washington were black and here are white, it feels almost like a natural progression of the lives of the children in the debut: just as 12-year-old Nasia found herself in love for the first time, so too does 20-something Paul.
Paul (Paul Schneider) lives in a small town in the rural South, a town too small to contain his womanizing ways. He's slept with over 20 women, leaving only a few women in town remotely his age not to know him Biblically. Yet Paul has no real attachment with any of his conquests; one jilted lover mentions angrily that he dumped her after a few weeks without warning. His buddies -- the most noteworthy being Tip (Shea Whigham) and Bust-Ass (Danny McBride) -- view their friend as a demigod, a paradigm of virility.
But that all changes when Tip's young sister Noel (Zooey Deschanel) returns home after spending the last few years at boarding school. 18 and still a virgin, she soon falls madly in love with Paul. Paul has slept with every other woman in town, but he does not do the same with Noel. No, he understands that this one is special.
The film reaches a crossroads at this point; it could have very easily gotten lost and taken the well-trod path of films that use this sexual tension as the summation of the plot. Happily, Green is too smart for this, and he instead focuses on the deeper meanings and feelings of young love. Interestingly, Noel is open to sex with Paul; early on, she admits to Paul that she's a virgin "but I trust you." The look on Schneider's face comes rather close to one of terror in this moment; at last a man in a film understands the power he holds over a woman, and chooses to abandon it because the implications unsettle him.
The two bond so closely that their love manages to pierce that detached cloud that surrounds Green's film. He may take a cue or five from Malick's directing style, but Green's movies contain a great deal more humanism and sentimentality. Paul and Noel's relationship genuinely moved me, and struck me as a real relationship instead of a movie one: you know the kind, the ones that form through montages of everyday activities that become overblown for lame gags in order to show us a couple falling in love. Noel and Paul have no such montage; they hang out in this dreary little town and just remark on what about the other person captivates them, and every conversation brings them closer.
That does not mean that, like Before Sunrise, there is no conflict. In fact there are two. One is nearly mandatory: Tip, who used to revere Paul, now resents his friend and his ways for getting close to his sister. Another occurs around 2/3 of the way into the film, and it's too devastating for me to spoil even if this film was 40 years old. It wrenches things apart over the course of a few agonizing scenes; where once the relative silence around the actors let the sweetness take root naturally, now it highlights the quiet destruction of the notion of true love. The most rending of these scenes occurs in a bowling alley where even less is said than usual, and everything is communicated through body language and terrible silence.
Green is so completely focused on the relationship of his leads that he pays little attention to the other characters. Nevertheless, they all have their moments. Tip could have easily been the outraged older sibling, but we see glimpses into the pain he's feeling over the situation and suddenly the protests of all the older brothers in films don't seem so childish. Paul lives with his mother (Patricia Clarkson), which only shows how empty his prior "accomplishments" really are. She works as a birthday clown, because she knows that people will fork over money to please their kids far more than Wal-Mart will pay overtime. Bust-Ass mainly gets a lot of laughs, but he has a role to play in the tragedy of the final act.
If I said All the Real Girls ended on a high note, I'd be lying through my teeth, but it doesn't necessarily leave us depressed either. Green said in a DVD supplement that he wanted to make a film where things didn't just work out because people were in love, that love alone isn't always enough. He also remarked upon the necessity of making the film as a young man, before he looked back on the youth of this film with either jadedness or nostalgia. I agree; what he instead imbues the film with is the sense of loss that can only be conveyed in the moment. It is not filtered through the perspective of a person who moved on from heartbreak nor a sort of Gatsby character who never got over the pain; rather, we feel the agony of heartbreak as it happens, as well as that sense of hope -- be it futile or not -- that reconciliation is possible.