All The Real Girls (a DVD review)by Dan Schneider
All The Real Girls was David Gordon Green’s 2003 follow up film to his 2000 debut film George Washington, which became an underground classic. The good news is that All The Real Girls is a superior film to that earlier excellent film, and Green shows real growth as a filmmaker. Like the earlier film, this film breaks with traditional narrative and spends the first third, or so, of its hour and forty eight minutes running time devoted to simply introducing the viewer to the main characters of the small southern town it’s set in. Although the film was shot in and around Asheville, North Carolina, with rapturous cinematography by Tim Orr, it’s not set in any specific time nor place. There is very little, in terms of technology or cultural references, to date it.
The film grabs the viewer from its terrific opening scene, where two unknown lovers talk about why the boy has not even tried to kiss the girl. It is an awkward but tender scene and we will soon learn the reasons why he has not kissed her in a scene no Hollywood producer would let any film of theirs open with. We soon learn that these two main characters are the town’s noted Lothario, Paul (Paul Schneider), an aimless but earnest fellow in his early twenties, and his odd girlfriend Noel (Zooey Deschanel), the college aged sister of Paul’s best friend, Tip (Shea Whigham), who looks like he just stepped out of a James Dean film.
Of course, Tip objects to the relationship between his best friend and baby sister, for he knows that Paul is as big a poon hound as he is, and violence ensues. Yet, it is not in the Hollywood fashion, and plays no major role in the film, which follows the realistic ups and downs of the first real love relationship for both characters. Even though Noel is a virgin when they meet, as she comes back to town after being away at boarding school, it is Paul who is the more insecure about himself. This may be because Noel’s family is from a richer social class. However, the viewer is not spoonfed such information as the scenes unfold; instead we are given only snippets into the lead and lesser characters. This, though, tells us more about their social and family milieu than direct exposition through straight ahead narrative.
The supporting characters also add realistic touches to the film. There is the wiseass, named Bust-Ass (Danny McBride), the nondescript friend to all (Maurice Compte), the older father figure for the younger guys, Paul’s Uncle Leland (Benjamin Mouton), a car mechanic, whose adopted daughter is an Asian girl named Feng Shui (Maya Ling Pruitt), Tip’s and Noel’s younger Down’s Syndrome brother Justin (John Kirkland), and Paul’s mom, a nurse and clown for kid’s parties, Elvira Fine (Patricia Clarkson), who gives a really good performance in a very limited role, aptly conveying the pains of being a single mother in side glances and sighs, while also giving insights into traits she passed on to her son. However, none of these characters are cardboard cutouts. In many respects, this film strongly resembles the 1982 Barry Levinson film Diner, save that this film surpasses that earlier classic on every score- acting, cinematography (which is truly stunning), and, most especially, in the screenplay.
The casting was also very wisely done, with pals of Green’s (like Schneider) filling the main parts, with a few Hollywood veteran B character actors (like Deschanel and Clarkson) rounding out the cast. This lends an aura of authenticity and quirkiness that a film with a big name, like Kevin Bacon or Sean Penn, could never achieve. In the end, the relationship fails, due to Noel’s infidelity, not Paul’s, and the moment this occurs is brilliantly conceived and executed. Noel is away for a weekend. She calls Paul and, as she speaks, she is exchanging glances with a boy she has obviously cuckolded Paul with. Nothing is stated but at that moment the viewer knows what is coming, it’s only the denouement that is in question. And the end of the film does not end with tantrums, nor recriminations, nor a nice, tidy ending.
Of course, amongst the brain dead force-fed set, raised on the most predictable Hollywood drivel that schlockmeisters like Steven Spielberg crank out, this resulted in the film being critically abused in some corners. Here’s the retort: to hell with those sorts of people. Let them have their predictable romantic comedies with their pabulum flavor of the year actresses. The few real cineastes out there can then savor this great little film all the more, and, no- it’s not slow paced at all. More character exposition actually occurs in this film than in Hollywood films over an hour longer. You simply have to relish the way it is given to you, in brief beautiful moments- snippets of conversation, humor and despair, or the sight of an odd two legged dog balancing its way across a street.
The film is chock full of such great moments, as when Paul and Tip reconcile, by a lakeside, as Tip sucks down a beer, and announces he’s going to be a daddy if the girl he knocked up decided not to have an abortion. Other images and scenes that stick are the aforementioned crippled dog, the scenes in the clothing mill, where fluffs of material in the air give way to time lapse clouds over the Appalachians, and a scene where Noel confesses how she accidentally killed a boy on a fishing trip with her dad, and then scarred herself as punishment, so she would never forget the pain, among a bevy of others. These all endear, but mostly reify the characters to the audience, for this film is also shorn of so many of the stereotypes about Southern life that Hollywood seems to thrive on. This is due to the terrific screenplay by Green, adapted from a story that he and Schneider wrote. Green shows that he has a good ear for realistic dialogue, and knowing how to edit the moment so that the most seemingly mundane words take on a poetic resonance. In short, what his characters say is not particularly deep, but the ideas behind those words are. His average folk simply have grasps that surpass their reach.
The DVD comes with a few deleted scenes, such as a making of featurette called "Improv And Ensemble: The Evolution Of A Film," and a commentary by Green and Schneider. While the commentary is not fellatio filled, nor is it a stiff critic merely reading off of notes, it does little to illuminate the film nor the process of its making. Green and Schneider too often talk like frat boys for any real depth to be conveyed. Fortunately, the actual film does not really need a load of didacticism to be appreciated.
For it does not really matter whether Paul and Noel will reconcile, as the film is about change and growth, not mere pat endings. This film is thus one that transcends its chronological bounds on film. The viewer has seen more than enough of the lead characters to care for them, so this film is really more about the place this little romance unfolds in, not its particular participants. The film’s producers, Lisa Muskat and Jean Doumanian should be commended for supporting such fine work, and you should buy this DVD and watch it when you think there is nothing good being produced today. It will ease your angst, and make almost two hours of your life a little brighter.
Take that, Darth Spielberg!