All the Real Girls

(2003) *** R
108 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: David Gordon Green. Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Maurice Compte, Zooey Deschanel, Danny R. McBride, Benjamin Mouton.

On viewing All the Real Girls, I could only conclude that it is, at least partly, brilliant. Director David Gordon Greene, in the press notes to his sophomore follow-up to the much-praised patience-tester George Washington, uses words like "genuine," "believable," "realistic," "specific," and "honesty" in reference to the emotional truth of the offbeat romance. Indeed, the film often reaches these lofty goals. But the fetishistic poster for the film serves warning. Green's trapped-in-the-'70s vibe is so precious that All the Real Girls is equally as artificial as real, as much (or more) an eerie function of cinema past-life as Far From Heaven or one of the Coen Brothers' Golden Age pastiches.

Nevertheless, modern filmmakers' worshipful attitude for the '70s is well-placed in a time of rampant commercialism, and one can easily imagine far less effective approaches to this same material. Green puts his unconventional love story--redolent even of Harold and Maude in its off-kilter humor--in a panoramic frame, painting in a warm but bleached palette rust and rot and overgrowth, natural beauty and man's lovely ruin. The approach to the mill-town backdrop evokes David Lynch's half-ironic postcard views of the Pacific Northwest in Twin Peaks and, even more loudly, the compositions of Terence Malick. Tim Orr's cinematography--as in George Washington--is almost tangibly gorgeous.

Paul Schneider--who developed the story with college classmate Green--stars as Paul, a 22-year-old middle-American mechanic with a well-earned reputation for womanizing. He tells true-love-in-waiting Noel (Zooey Deschanel), "I've made some ugly mistakes." Noel, inconveniently, is eighteen and the little sister of Paul's all-too-knowing best friend, Tip (Shea Wingham), but she tells Paul, "You're the first one I've wanted to talk to for more than five minutes, ever."

Noel's joie de vivre and off-limits status take up most of the first phase of the film. The quirky development of their asexual courting capitalizes on the small-town cachet of people and places (the film was shot entirely in North Carolina, with several non-professionals in the cast), and Green and the actors pepper most scenes with visual and verbal non-sequiturs like a dialogue staged with awkward purpose in the middle of a quiet bowling lane.

The film's real brilliance becomes apparent midway through, when Green so effectively spins our expectations after fully investing us in the presumable romantic paradigm of the story. The spin, another "ugly mistake" which I won't reveal, develops with surprising credibility and wisely shies from assigning easy blame. The full development of this new course's awkward consequences is heartbreakingly honest (a late-in-the-film sex scene underscores this with appropriate harshness).

The virtues of All the Real Girls are many. The acting, though sometimes indulgently lethargic, is uniformly fine (including Patricia Clarkson as Paul's hospital clown mother and Danny McBride as comic relief Bust-Ass). The film is busting with great lines (and, yes, some clunkers). Thematically, the film develops with admirable restraint themes of nature (environmental, human, and animal)--represented as a sometimes troubled river--and, most effectively, the arrested development, for better and worse, of children, young adults, and elders.

For all this, Green momentarily indulges unnecessary filigrees of marginal characters, restlessly prolongs the story beyond a natural clinch, and frustrates with willful stylistic echoes of other filmmakers in an otherwise pure narrative attempt. Perhaps evoking Malick most of all (Paul's uncle seems cast to be a Sam Shepard clone), Green's good taste partly undermines his own distinctiveness and thus fails to rise to his idols' occasions. It's a slice of life a la (movie) mode.

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