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25-year-old director's promising debut
Small-town teens address life in eccentric 'George Washington'
(CNN) -- Give youth credit where it's due -- and it is due, this time, for David Gordon Green, director of "George Washington." A sometimes startling feature debut, his film is a formless examination of heroism and childhood loyalty set against the backdrop of a small Southern town.
Like other young directors, Green reaches, and occasionally comes back empty-handed. His aspirations toward bedraggled, arty insight are often embarrassing, and his dialogue has the same monotone, unimportantly important timbre that you find in films by Harmony Korine ("KIds," 1995).
But, unlike Korine, Green tempers his metaphysical distress with genuine emotionalism and a flowing sense of forgiveness. He loves and respects his characters; they're more than an affected, well-photographed freak show.
"George Washington" is terribly problematic -- it seems like Green will go on for 12 hours before he draws a useful conclusion -- but it's beautifully photographed by cinematographer Tim Orr, and features scores of tender, memorable exchanges.
Solid characters, no plot
Green follows the unstructured lives of a group of poverty-stricken kids (some are white, most are black) in a small Southern town. His cast is almost completely made up of nonprofessionals, and he draws remarkable performances from them.
Once again, there's no way to convey the plot, because there really isn't one. The heroism angle, though apparently heartfelt, seems like an afterthought that's meant to graft a sense of purpose onto the proceedings.
Twelve-year-old Nasia (Candace Evanofski) narrates the story in a matter-of-fact manner that shifts between good humor and grave attempts at deeper meaning. In one of the first scenes, Nasia breaks up with her boyfriend, Buddy (Curtis Cotton III). She's fallen in love with a strange, beatific kid named George (Donald Holden) who will eventually come to represent the cracked spirit of everyone in the film.
George suffers from an odd birth defect: The top of his skull hasn't grown together. Nasia tells us that if he gets his head wet, his brain might swell and he'd die. (God only knows if that's a legitimate possibility.) George has to distance himself from the other kids' rough-housing, and he wears a football helmet as a precautionary measure.
Nasia nonchalantly explains to Buddy that she's dropping him because George is a more mature person -- never mind that George is a rather spooky 12-year-old and Buddy is already 13. Nasia and Buddy's conversation is like a lovelorn "who's on first," with poor Buddy grasping to understand the logic.
The script also boasts several sweet, teasing scenes between the kids, their parents and their siblings. The relaxed camaraderie sometimes is enough to bring tears to your eyes.
Green's most effective scenes are wholly free of calculation. The actors or so naturalistic, you'd think they're channeling mid-1950s Marlon Brando. Unfortunately, just as many moments are like studies in free-associating performance art.
Green owes an obvious debt to director Terrence Malick, whose movies contain equally blase instances of dim-witted character insight. But Malick has a much sharper sense of humor than Green does, and (with the notable exception of 1998's "The Thin Red Line") he knows exactly where he's heading.
"George Washington" mainly consists of the gang wandering around town while dissecting whatever oddball topic strikes their fancy, though that makes it sound too much like an episode of "Seinfeld." Green is shooting for nothing less than poetry. George and his friends spout half-informed theories on the meaning of life, pets, and parental distress, and they seem pretty loaded with cockeyed insight, given their lack of experience.
Green so often lays on visual and verbal non sequiters that it becomes a stylistic tic. Practically every scene ends with a head-scratching declaration of one sort or another, or a shot of an object that bears little relation to anything in the scene that preceded it. An accidental death midway through the film also seems forced and a little bit desperate. The cast's response to it is just plain crazy.
Give Green some time. Once he comes to understand that even eccentric films require a modicum of narrative drive, he could turn out to be a first-rate filmmaker, sort of a cross between Malick and a grunge-rock balladeer.
For now, "George Washington" serves as a perplexing calling card from a distinctively talented artist. It offers a generous amount of treasures, if you summon the patience to sit through it.
"George Washington" is full of profanity, disturbing conversations, and economic squalor. A dog is killed off-camera, and many of the grownups seem well on their way to psychosis. Rated R. 90 minutes.
Cowboy Booking International
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