Director: David Gordon Green
Starring: Paul Schneider, Zooey Deschanel, Shea Whigham, Patricia Clarkson, Danny McBride
Running Time: 108 min.
Release Date: 2003
***1/2 (out of ****)
I’ve come to the realization that the more movies I watch the tougher it becomes to stay objective. I think that’s because after a while you get so familiar with certain actors, actresses and directors that you can’t help but play favorites. You become such a fan that you look at them more as investments and when they make choices you don’t agree with there’s almost the tendency to almost take it personally.
Zooey Deschanel is an actress who’s always the best thing in whatever she’s in yet most of the material she’s been given throughout her career is below her and she’s forced to elevate it, rather than it elevating her. That one huge breakthrough role has eluded her. The one that would get everyone to look at her as a full-fledged lady rather than the quirky best friend. If you think about it it’s a crime most moviegoers don’t even know who she is, and those who do think of her only in that way.
Imagine my surprise then when I heard from more than a few people that her big role came and went and I, along with most of the country, missed it. It was a very low budget indie released in 2003 called All The Real Girls directed by this guy named David Gordon Green. I told myself I had to watch it, but years passed and now Green is only known to me as the director of this summer’s Apatow/Rogen stoner comedy Pineapple Express (which I’ve yet to see).
To educate myself on Green I had a few choices. I could have easily started with his debut film, the critically acclaimed George Washington or even 2004’s Undertow but hearing what I did about Deschanel’s performance I knew his sophomore effort was the logical first step. And now after FINALLY watching All The Real Girls it’s difficult for me to comprehend just based on the commercials and trailers for Pineapple Express how the same man could have possibly directed those two pictures.
For the most part I got what I expected out of this just not at all in the way I anticipated. Green was obviously less interested in making a film than reflecting a mood and this is a viewing experience that requires a lot of patience. If you have it, you’ll be rewarded by the end. In telling what should be a fairly conventional love story Green lays all his cards out on the table slowly. So slowly and methodically that it makes The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (which the co-stars of this coincidentally appeared in) play like a fast-paced Michael Bay film in comparison.
It’s one of the best examples of Roger Ebert’s famous theory that it's not important what a movie’s about, but HOW it’s about it. It takes a relatively simple scenario (guy wants best friend’s sister) and turns it into an almost cataclysmic event that carries life-altering implications for the parties involved. But what it’s really about is that guy justifiably questioning whether he really deserves her love, and in doing so proving that he does. Then real life intrudes. The film’s tagline, “Love is a puzzle. These are the pieces” couldn’t be more accurate.
The guy is Paul (Paul Schneider), a womanizer in his early twenties who lives in a small, rural North Carolina town and fixes cars for his uncle. His mother, Elvira (Patricia Clarkson) works as a clown at a local children’s hospital, an irony that isn’t lost amidst the bleak setting of the film. When his best friend Tip’s (Shea Whigham) younger teenage sister Noel (Deschanel) returns home from boarding school they secretly begin dating behind Tip’s back. There are certain unspoken rules among guy friends that you just don’t dare break. This one is so big just the possibility couldn’t even be brought up at risk of ruining the friendship.
I saw something similar to this happen in high school and I had no idea how the two guys could even co-exist in the same room together, much less remain friends (and this from someone without a sister). To their credit, they did. In Paul’s case, this leap he takes is a far cry from any relationship he’s been in before, if you want to call those relationships. While Noel has remained a virgin he’s bedded nearly every girl in town, and believes (maybe naively) that she can transform him into a better person. He proceeds with caution not wanting to mess up the only great thing that has ever entered his life.
We think the big payoff and fireworks will come when Tip finds out about what’s been going on, but that’s just the starting point. Something bigger happens that causes us to consider that maybe it’s actually Paul who needs to be protected. What happens should be uneventful and just a blip on the radar on our way to a happy ending, but that’s what separates Green from a lesser filmmaker. This is real life and his script refuses to compromise. Sometimes you just can’t get your act together and no matter how much you tell yourself love will save the day the ball is in your court. And you can drop it. A scene occurs late that should be the highlight of these characters lives. Instead, it’s been sabotaged by their fear and self-destructive behavior.
Green conceived the story for All The Real Girls in college with best friend Schneider, whom he always envisioned starring. Another friend and former classmate, Danny McBride has a small role in the film as the wisecracking Bust-Ass and has since gone on to mainstream success in Tropic Thunder and the aforementioned Pineapple Express. Supposedly, Green and Schneider’s goal was to make a love story that felt real and absent of any manipulation. Not only was that accomplished but it feels as close to a poem as a film can get in both its dialogue and visuals.
The characters have this stilted, unfinished way of speech that has led many to accuse Green of depicting them as mentally challenged. They’re not (although one is). They’re just simple people from a small rural town and we’re not used to seeing that population of America portrayed accurately on film, which makes it jarring. Its obvious much of the dialogue is improvised, which just enhances the realism. And you've got to respect any script that contains the line: "Last night I had a dream that you grew a garden on the trampoline and I was so happy that I invented peanut butter!"
How Tim Orr’s cinematography failed to get an Oscar nomination will have to remain a mystery as I’d have trouble naming ten films I’ve seen over the past few years that use light and color as well as this one. He’s shot every one of Green’s films but just based on his work here I’d peg him as the heir apparent to Roger Deakins. The film dwells in the simple beauty of the everyday.
This has been widely regarded as Zooey Descanel’s best performance and it isn’t hard to see why. The quirkiness we love is still there, but it seems channeled in a different, darker, way this time and the part allows her to dig places she hasn’t before. It’s the most exposed she’s been emotionally. Is it her best work? So far, probably, but I still have this sneaking suspicion at such a young age she has something even better in her and will give many more performances that surpass it. Paul Schneider often gets the short end of the stick when the movie’s discussed because Zooey’s so strong but he has no problems keeping up and at times is as good as she is. He isn’t completely believable as a serial womanizer but it fits since his character doesn’t want to believe he is one either.
It’s amazing with the amount of movies I watch that the ones that always seem to hit me hardest explore real people struggling with real problems. The well will never run dry as far as the different types of stories that can be told and Green is yet another fresh voice in that genre. This is independent cinema in its truest, most basic form and lacking any pretensions.
It seems strange that a movie featuring what’s arguably Zooey Deschanel’s best performance to date would somehow fall short of a 4 star rating. As much as I respect this film it’s a difficult one for me to wrap my arms around and fully embrace precisely because it’s so painfully real. Its reality lends itself to inaccessibility for those who go to movies to escape the real world rather than wallow in how unfair it may be. Much like its characters, the film narrowly escapes perfection.
It’s interesting that when David Gordon Green flirted with the mainstream with a stoner comedy you didn’t hear the usual cries of “SELL-OUT.” I think that says a lot. It could mean audiences didn’t feel Green would make a step like that unless he really wanted to and his intentions were genuine. After All The Real Girls there’s no doubt this is a writer/director who bleeds sincerity. And in doing that he’s already earned something from audiences that most filmmakers have to work their entire career for: Trust.