Like David Gordon Green’s debut feature, George Washington, his follow-up, All the Real Girls, opens on two characters in the middle of an important conversation. Where the younger children in the first film talked in faux-adult language about a curtailed relationship, this older pair – Paul (22) and Noel (18) – teasingly flirt their way through the early stages of a potential romance. Immediately, we are in recognisable Green territory, both physically and psychologically.
Their location is a small, unnamed Southern rural town, somewhere in North Carolina. The emphasis on place is strong, its unique atmosphere and rhythm constantly present in the measured pace of action and dialogue. Green’s characters are thinkers and the film revels in charting the intricacies of their mental and emotional development. In this instance, Paul and Noel must consider the implications and effect of their union. For them to embark on a relationship is problematic. He has a reputation as a philanderer who has already worked his way through a slew of girls, caring little, till now, for their distress. Having been absent at boarding school for much of her academic life, she is prepared to take the risk but in doing so will incur the wrath of her older brother, Tip. Overly protective, Tip cannot stand the idea of her being with one of his friends; and having grown up with Paul, he is well aware of his friend’s predilections.
Against the odds, Noel and Paul embrace their first experience of falling in love, with captivating, if bittersweet, results. Utterly realistic but maintaining a fairytale element, the film manages to capture all the excitement, wonder, nervousness, intensity and pain of first love. This is aided enormously by excellent performances from Zooey Deschanel, who charms, intrigues and frustrates as Noel, and Paul Schneider (shades of Martin Donovan and also the film’s co-writer) whose puppy-dog bemusement contrasts well with his youthful, well-intentioned energy. The cast of supporting characters are also exemplary. Paul’s mother, with whom he has a strong friendship, is played brilliantly by Patricia Clarkson, who won an award at Sundance, and Shea Wingham as Tip achieves the kind of volatile character that Sean Penn often plays so well.
It’s difficult to imagine Green working outside this milieu: not because he lacks the skill, but because he has made it his own so quickly and surely, mining his own vein the way that some of America’s more interesting directors have – Neil LaBute, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Todd Solondz. He has had the added vision, of course, of cinematographer Tim Orr, whose lush green and burnt yellow landscapes made George Washington look so sumptuous. Having already made another feature, Undertow (based on an original idea by Terrence Malick), Green is due to work on an adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces – appropriately a novel set in the South, again with a very strong connection to place. A staple of ‘great’ American literature, it will certainly be interesting to see how he manages to shape the language and landscape to make it is his own.