Love is a puzzle. These are the pieces.
Few springboards have spawned more crass, cynical, and downright vile Hollywood movies than the concept of two young people in love.
All the Real Girls is not one of those movies.
Facts of the Case
Paul (Paul Schneider, who co-conceived the story with writer/director David Gordon Green) is a twentysomething slacker who's lived all his life in the same small Southern town, one of those places where life revolves around the economic travails of the local textile mill, and where everyone knows everyone else and all of their business. Paul's day job, such as it is, involves mechanic work for his easygoing uncle Leland (Benjamin Mouton, best recalled as Julia Roberts's suicidal junkie dad in Flatliners), and occasionally assisting his mother Elvira (Patricia Clarkson, The Green Mile, Far From Heaven), who entertains as a clown at the children's wing of the local hospital and hires out for birthday parties and the like.
Paul's true avocation, though, is sucking down forties of Old Style and chasing all the eligible skirt within the county lines, along with his three lifelong buddies: Elvis-coiffed rich kid Tip (Shea Whigham, Tigerland), philosophical Bo (Maurice Compte, Deuces Wild, Showtime), and goofy wisenheimer Tracy, known to his pals as Bust-Ass (Danny McBride). But that feckless approach to life changes the day Tip's virginal teenage sister Noel (Zooey Deschanel, Mumford, Almost Famous) returns from a six-year sojourn at an all-female boarding school. Noel's decided to forego college for the moment, to avoid, as she puts it, "four years of writing bad 'girl poetry' and listening to drum circles."
Paul and Noel fall gently and genuinely in love with one another, much to the displeasure of Tip, who knows every intimate detail of Paul's sexual history as a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am kind of guy. As Bo tells Paul, "He [Tip] sees in you all the things he hates in himself." But Paul is determined not to let either his strained friendship with Tip or the errors of his past—errors that appear to involve every woman in town under the age of 40—sabotage the first genuine love of his life.
Lysander warns Hermia in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, "The course of true love never did run smooth." Substitute Paul for Lysander and Noel for Hermia, and you understand just how universal some truths are.
In 2000, David Gordon Green earned plaudits as filmdom's latest fair-haired boy with his lyrical debut, George Washington. All the Real Girls, Green's follow-up effort, is a different, more conventional texture of film than GW, which encircled the lives of a group of small children. The two pictures, however, share a common setting—an anonymous Carolina mill town—and director Green's uniquely oblique storytelling style, an amalgam of Southern traditionalism redolent of Faulkner, McCullers, and Tennessee Williams, and a nonlinear narrative approach that feels more European than American. All the Real Girls also marks the return of Green's director of photography Tim Orr, who may well possess one of the most magical eyes among cinematographers working today. It is a nigh-impossible task to characterize a Green film for the reader who has seen neither, but at least from this writer's perspective, the effect can be summarized in a single word: hypnotic.
As a modern romance, All the Real Girls hits all the correct notes in a way few films ever have. Paul and Noel talk to—and about—one another in that tentative, pseudophilosophical, roundabout way that males and females, young and old, talk with and about that special someone who sprinkles stardust in their eyes. The dialogue Green places in the mouths of lead players Paul Schneider and Zooey Deschanel bears little resemblance to typical movie-lovers dialogue, which is usually written to generate pithy soundbites for trailers rather than convey genuine emotion. Here, it's refreshing to hear two people speak for one another's ears and not for an audience of teenyboppers with no experience of life outside the local mall. In Noel and Paul's halting and circular conversations, I could swear I heard hypnotic echoes of moments shared in the youthful dawn of love with my now-wife.
It's also a delight to see these same two characters played by actors whose screen chemistry vibrates with humanity and depth. Deschanel, who's rapidly maturing into one of the most distinctive thespians of her generation, can act rings around the journeyman Schneider, but they interact so well together that the monumental disparity in talent fades seamlessly into the context of their relationship—Noel, having seen more of the outside world in her six years at boarding school than Paul has in his lifetime, should be the more striking, literate, and colorful partner, and is. But Schneider, reminding this Judge of a younger, pudgier, Southern-fried Kevin Costner, holds up his end in the more central and screentime-intensive role of the nickel-and-dime Lothario who finally meets his match.
The supplementary performances woven around Deschanel and Schneider add golden threads to the tapestry of the film. Patricia Clarkson, the cast's most experienced member, shines in the relatively small role of Paul's mother, who sees in her son a microcosm of her life's interaction with the male of the species. Shea Whigham brings an earnest complexity to the character of Tip, a role that could have simply degenerated into angry stereotype, but instead gains a certain redneck dignity (oxymoronic as that sounds) through the actor's intelligence and heart. As the respectively dark and dorky members of the film's Greek chorus, Maurice Compte and Danny McBride fill in the background nicely. And some of the film's most winning moments arrive in the form of Paul's interactions with the two children in the cast, his uncle's little daughter (Maya Ling Pruitt) who bears the metaphoric handle Feng Shui, and a young man with Down syndrome.
Viewers weaned on the pell-mell pace of the average empty-headed Hollywood rom-com may become frustrated with the elegiac measure at which Green allows his story to develop and grow. The director takes plenty of time to let the viewer warm to his characters and drink in the glorious camera work of DP Tim Orr. The rewards of that unhurried meander include a thoughtful storyline that doesn't always go exactly where we expect—though it remains logically consistent within the bounds of that fractured illogic we call human nature—and the joy of meeting a group of particular people in a picturesque hometown America where people cling to dreams despite all evidence that dreams are folly, and chase the occasional rainbow even though there really are no leprechauns with pots of gold at the end of any of them, and sometimes do other than what we think they should, or even what they themselves think they should.
If you haven't lived some of these experiences yourself, just live a while longer, my friend. You will. And when you do, you'll remember this film, and you'll smile a knowing smile, and nod to yourself with newfound comprehension. That a director and screenwriter in his mid-twenties has this level of understanding of love and life already is remarkable. That he can translate that perception to film is even more so. Amid the sturm und drang of a bombastic year in cinema, David Gordon Green has quietly created one of the most winsome and memorable movies of the decade thus far.
As befits such a delightful motion picture, Columbia TriStar's Sony Pictures Classics imprint brings All the Real Girls to the home video market in a well-crafted DVD offering. A brilliant and spotless anamorphic transfer preserves every loving frame of Tim Orr's luscious cinematography in an expansive 2.35:1 presentation. Both color and clarity are pristine and marvelously filmic in quality. Only very occasional compression flaws, mostly some minimal breakup of deep shadows, mar these excellent pictures.
Chief among the extra features is an audio commentary bringing together collaborators David Gordon Green and Paul Schneider. The fraternal relationship between these two film-school compadres shines through their conversation. Much of the discussion centers around the development of the project and the actors involved in the production. Don't expect a great deal of elaboration on the story itself, which, given the nature of the narrative, is an appropriate tack for the two filmmakers to take.
The 19-minute documentary featurette, entitled Improv and Ensemble: The Evolution of a Film, captures the reflections of director Green and several members of the cast. It's a top-quality interview collection with no flash—again, appropriately matched to the tone of the film whose origins it chronicles.
A battery of deleted scenes mostly demonstrate how much of the comic-relief character of Bust-Ass, played by Green and Schneider's college buddy Danny McBride, wound up in the editor's wastebasket—with good reason, from what we see here. Most of these character bits, though amusing, are noisy and incongruous, and the film benefits from their absence.
Widescreen theatrical trailers for All the Young Girls and Love Liza conclude the package.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Without discounting in any way the moving, dramatically human work by Paul Schneider as the eponymous character he helped create and brings to life in this film, I can't help but wonder what additional dimension another actor—perhaps even Shea Whigham, who plays the volatile Tip—might have lent to the male lead. As well as Schneider sells himself in the role of Paul, he really seems too easygoing and offhandedly boyish to be 100% convincing as this notorious rake who has bedded and abandoned everything wearing a skirt in his hometown. This weakness is truly glaring only once, in a scene where Paul is confronted in a bar by a local woman, played by Heather McComb, who is one of his past conquests.
Casting an edgier actor might have given the character a stronger arc, and lent a more palpable dynamic to Paul's relationship with Noel. Or it might have ruined everything that's good about the character as it stands. One never knows.
Those of us who write about often overuse words like "charming," "compelling," and "enchanting." But All the Real Girls is the sort of film for which those words were coined. I'll add another one—"authentic." If any of those words appeal to your sensibilities, dash out right now and grab a copy of this DVD. If you've ever been in love, or think someday you might be—either with another person, with the cinema, or just with the constantly unfolding mystery of life—you should see and savor this movie. If you're in love right now, watch it with that special person, and you'll be reminded why.
All charges against All the Real Girls are summarily dismissed. The defendant is free to go. We're adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director/Writer David Gordon Green and Actor Paul Schneider
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