I was never quite convinced that director David Gordon Green’s previous George Washington needed to be on my must-see list, nor am I convinced that I would have been any poorer a student of the films of the cinema if I hadn’t checked out this little romantic drama, one of the more acclaimed releases from a typically dire first-half-of-the-year lineup. A gentle essay on young romance, All the Real Girls is uncommonly optimistic about human nature and softly reflective in a way that contemporary films hardly ever aspire to be. In that, its sensibility is almost anachronistic; I’m not sure there’s a cynical moment in its 108-minute running time.
Despite Green’s apparent willingness to let his actors do a little improv, the film’s appeal on the whole is a little too, well, writerly for me, with characters expressing themselves in an economy of too-well-chosen words or a child verbalizing the imagery of a dream that is then reflected, over and over, in the film’s overly symbolic visuals. They’re gorgeous visuals, of course; all of the characters are bathed in a warm glow in almost every scene, making the North Carolina textile-factory town landscape seem ironically womblike in its general comforts, and the film is shot in scope (by Jim Orr, who also shot George Washington and Raising Victor Vargas), giving it a rich cinematic quality that most indie features these days lack the time, money or patience to pursue. But, you know, you only have to show us a scene featuring inwardly miserable clowns doing ridiculous little dances to convey the whole laughing-on-the-outside-crying-on-the-inside schism; you don’t have to have the characters observe aloud how happy they are (not) in subsequent scenes unless you’re ready to add layers of meaning, which Green isn’t, really. And the one key confrontation between eager young lovers Paul and Noel – depicting a confession in the course of which she becomes a “real girl” in his eyes, rather than an idealization – isn’t quite as convincing in the ebb and flow of its heated conversation. It feels like the big scene that has to work, to set up the third act of the picture, rather than the one that grows organically and inexorably out of the characters and situations.
On the other hand, there are an awful lot of throwaway moments that feel just like a day in the life. (I particularly liked the one where a character drinking beers out of the can remarks, in a tossed-off and quasi-macho aside, that he’s spent the afternoon “pounding master cylinders.”) If there is a great deal of self-consciousness in this picture (it’s something that a director as young as Green appears to be may or may not be able to easily overcome), its simplicity remains a great virtue. Moreover, if you’ll let yourself be lulled, there’s something rewardingly hypnotic about the low-key performances, the unhurried editing rhythms, and the slow zooms and tracking shots. It reminded me of reading Proust, being taken into someone’s deep conscious memories of what it was like the first time they fell in love.