Such recent movies as The Good Girl, One Hour Photo, and About Schmidt suggest that the cinema can still connect with the drab underside of American life, sounding the muted note of defeat and despair that accompanies the grand public trumpet of confident optimism and exuberant expansion. Our nostalgia for a past that may never have existed, our self-deluding memories of childhood, our hopeful agrarian mythology, and our sentimental idylls of the rustic village disguise a potential for disappointment and disenchantment lurking beneath the surface of our troubled national psyche. Hollywood may celebrate our grand vistas in the vivid colors of the Western, but like the greatest American literature, it now and then acknowledges the loneliness of those great open spaces and the deeper emptiness within them.
The new independent film All the Real Girls was written and directed by David Gordon Green --- who directed the highly praised George Washington (which was not about the guy on the dollar bill). It shows a slice of American life of the rural variety, Southern style, that contrasts starkly with the allegedly heartwarming melodramas and feel-good romances of the garden-variety village flick. The story is told mostly by means of a series of brief, sparsely populated sequences, set in a dreary landscape. The picture deals with a small group of men in their early twenties, who are facing the generally unattractive, perhaps even impossible prospect of growing up and doing something with their lives. Apparently without much in the way of education, incentive, or hope, the four friends spend most of their time just hanging out in their North Carolina mill town, at the mercy of feelings they barely comprehend, stuck in situations they cannot even summon the emotion to resent.
The movie focuses on Paul (Paul Schneider), supposedly something of a rustic Lothario, who, after numerous adventures with other women, falls in love for the first time. The object of his affection is Noel (Zooey Deschanel), the younger sister of his best friend, Tip (Shea Whigham), who's just back from boarding school --- a highly unlikely and quite inexplicable bit of background that constitutes one of the puzzles of the script. Even more naive and feckless than her slightly older suitor, Noel returns Paul's love, and the two embark on a sweet, sincere relationship. Their affair, however, creates a rift between Paul and his friends, especially Tip, and causes tension between Paul and his mother (played by Patricia Clarkson).
Notwithstanding that central love affair and its more-or-less predictable vicissitudes, the real meaning of the film lies in the lives and language of its people. Nothing very profound or important happens, beyond the sequence of relatively trivial episodes that reveal the essence of the characters. Essentially inarticulate, groping for words to express the poetry that sometimes stirs within them, the characters speak most eloquently in their silences. For the most part, the script provides only minimal information about its characters, their pasts, and their connections. It demands acceptance without any special understanding, and allows us to not so much hear as to overhear, as if we're eavesdropping on the thoughts and feelings the characters cannot really comprehend or utter.
All the Real Girls proceeds through a series of loosely connected moments, many of which resemble life more than cinema. The friends hang out, poking at a fire, drinking beer, discussing the advisability of matters like adding mothballs to gasoline, occasionally working at some nebulous job, or planning some vague --- and sometimes entirely puzzling --- activity together. For example, at one point, Paul and one of his chums, decked out in helmets and safety gear, drive Paul's mother's tinny little Ford in a stock car race, trundling around the track far behind the souped-up junkers --- which makes no sense at all. In another scene, Paul reluctantly dresses in a clown suit to help his mother in her job as a children's entertainer. Full of anger and resentment, he dances comically, grotesquely, and horribly for kids in a pediatric ward.
The cast of mostly unfamiliar and generally unglamorous actors handles the material with impressive, even amazing, skill; barely acting at all, they look and sound exactly like the characters they play. Paul Schneider hardly seems like a lady-killer, even of the small-town variety. But he conveys his anger and distress with a good deal of conviction. Whether intentional or not, like the rest of the actors, Schneider sometimes mumbles the dialogue so badly that it is difficult to understand --- taking method acting to its logical extreme. Zooey Deschanel speaks with that Southern, rising inflection, so every statement she makes sounds like a question. This perfectly captures the uncertainty and tentativeness of her character, who changes and grows, ultimately becoming stronger, but also more troubling, breaking Paul's heart with an act that even puzzles her.
Though it sometimes moves uncertainly through its flat, thin plot, All the Real Girls succeeds mostly as a character study; as a display of some terrific, low-key performances; and as a most authentic examination of the constriction and emptiness of ordinary lives. Its bleak beauty, its ordinary faces, its steadfast avoidance of melodrama capture a rare sense of reality. Sharing an unillusioned understanding of the banal and the commonplace, it belongs in the same company as The Good Girl and About Schmidt.
You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:15 a.m., rerun on Saturdays at 11:15 a.m.
All the Real Girls, starring Paul Schneider, Zooey Deschanel, Patricia Clarkson, Shea Whigham, Maurice Compte, Benjamin Mouton, Danny McBride; written and directed by David Gordon Green. Little Theatre.