Writer/director David Gordon Green burst onto the independent-film scene two years ago with the haunting, lyrical George Washington. An exquisitely observed tone poem that straddled the worlds of documentary and narrative film (all the actors were nonprofessionals), the picture concerned a group of racially integrated youngsters in the poverty-stricken South and how they responded to a tragedy involving two of their members. Simple yet eloquent, the film offered a slice of life -- at a time when life suddenly goes awry.
For his sophomore effort, All the Real Girls, Gordon returned to rural North Carolina and another lazy summer when life takes unexpected turns. This time the event in question is the bittersweet experience of first love. Although the film evinces a believable slice-of-life rhythm and air, much of the dialogue and action -- or inaction -- proves so mundane as to be boring. Certainly the film lacks the elegiac quality of George Washington.
The always interesting Zooey Deschanel (Almost Famous, The Good Girl) stars as eighteen-year-old Noel, who has returned to town after six years at boarding school. Although as directionless as the other kids in town, she is thoughtful and inquisitive, with an unusually direct manner. She finds herself falling for her brother Tip's best friend, Paul (Paul Schneider, who also gets a "story by" credit), an unambitious 22-year-old known for his cavalier treatment of women. He and Tip (Shea Whigham) are the local roués and have never given any consideration to the pain they have caused the town's female population.
Paul, however, has never met anybody like Noel, who doesn't play games and doesn't hesitate to say exactly what she is thinking. He finds himself falling in love for the first time and, wanting this relationship to be different, resists having sex or even, for a time, so much as kissing her. The virginal Noel wants to act on her intense emotional feelings, however, and does not understand his reluctance.
The film concerns the effect the romance has on each partner, as well as on Paul's friendship with Tip who, being enormously protective of his younger sister, tries to break up the relationship. Whigham, who looks like a young, sullen Michael Douglas and exudes the bad-boy vulnerability of James Dean, is a real find, simmering with complex emotions that erupt in fits of violence but also unexpected moments of introspection and self-realization.
Paul is a more problematic character for the audience to wrap themselves around. He is extremely low-key, almost to the point of dullness. One would have expected him to look and act more like Tip. It may be that his attraction to Noel has made him so vulnerable that he seems passive. Because the audience is not shown Paul's previous mode of operation, however, we are not only left to accept his outlaw reputation on faith but don't get to really see the emotional changes he is experiencing. (Patricia Clarkson is wonderful in the role of his mother.)
It's worth noting that Schneider proves far more effective on a second viewing of the film, when, perhaps, we are expecting the less overt personality. The second time around, one actually catches quite a bit going on under the placid surface. Still, his low-wattage personality seems to affect the film's pacing, resulting in a kind of lethargy that hurts the film.
Despite the criticisms, All the Real Girls is worth seeing, both for its evocation of the pains and joys associated with first love (the film won a Special Jury Prize for Emotional Truth at this year's Sundance Film Festival) and because it is the work of the supremely talented Gordon. Although the writer/director successfully retains the unhurried quality of his earlier picture, the dialogue lacks that film's poetic tone. Too often the lines come off as mundane and boring rather than simple but real. At other times they prove overly precious.
Working once again with cinematographer Tim Orr, Gordon achieves a kind of literary sense of time and place, as if one were reading a written description that then gives rise to images. Actually, "timelessness" would be a more accurate description; the film's physical and emotional landscape suggests no specific past or present. That is a difficult impression to achieve and is one more example of Gordon's obvious talent.