Early into All the Real Girls, David Gordon Green's follow up to his remarkably assured debut George Washington, a couple deep in the throes of young love is found atop a mountain. Noel (Zooey Deschanel) is speaking with Paul (Paul Schneider, also receiving a "story by" credit), telling him that at times she pretends that she only has ten seconds to live. In many ways this is a particularly insightful comment, as it helps explain what Green accomplishes so well with his deliberate, atmospheric films. Instead of being the sort of "carpe diem!" sentiment that Hollywood is so fond of, these "ten seconds" are rendered into something much more complex. It is indeed a call to action, but of an entirely different sort: it is a plea for – and celebration of – appreciation, heightened awareness, and moment to moment feeling and being.
Dealing with the subject matter of young love and its sheer, overwhelming magnitude, Green and Schneider have bravely chosen to explore it with a written narrative that can only be described as threadbare at best in the traditional sense. Note the emphasis on the word written – through seamless evocation of mood and quiet insight, an unspoken narrative of love and tenderness has been created, complex and utterly convincing, one that will be instantly recognizable to the hearts and minds of any who have once themselves surrendered to it. This is a truth located somewhere beyond words, beyond society (Girls' North Carolina mill town setting is captured with a beautiful, almost timeless quality), and beyond sober, everyday comprehension. And, more often than not, Green succeeds wildly in capturing it.
The thrust of All the Real Girls, such as it is, concerns Paul's relationship with Noel as it progresses from initial, intoxicating infatuation to something both more mature and challenging. Paul, the sort of young man who has made all the local rounds and, in the words of one character, is the "asshole ex-boyfriend" in "every girl's notebook," is introduced already enamored. Noel, the younger sister of Paul's best friend Tip (Shea Whigham) who has returned from studies away, is prodding him as to why he has not kissed her yet. This opening, which lasts for minutes, employs a steady camera with the lovers in the center of the frame, and nicely sets the general tone of the film: quiet and patient, searching through the stillness, and not always aware of what it might find.
Green also enriches this tale with that which may seem mundane on the surface: daily chatter amongst friends, quiet games played with children, and the role that surroundings play in influencing outlooks. As with the characters' ceaseless searching, such dynamics are considered through a mode of discovery and contemplation. Green and Schneider are also acutely aware that often the most emotional realizations and honest exchanges - connections - between people take place seemingly at random, unplanned and unannounced, and can be extremely brief in nature: Paul's mother Elvira (the great Patricia Clarkson), as all good women would, expresses anticipatory sorrow for her son's seemingly latest conquest; Tip, alienated from Paul, speaks of vulnerability, unexpectedly and tenderly; a little girl (Maya Ling Pruitt) nearly breaks the heart of Leland (Benjamin Mouton) by expressing the most basic of concerns. This telling of highly personal tales and feelings, the sort usually only meaningful to the teller, is afforded great significance in Girls, and its mood is such that it can evoke both laughter and tears with the slightest manipulation.
This is contemplative, deeply compassionate, and wise filmmaking that is so remarkably true to its own brand of storytelling that it at once feels ancient and utterly radical.
Green's direction is almost always compared to Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, the Thin Red Line), another American director with naturalistic tendencies, which is perfectly understandable. After two films, however, I think he is equally akin to David Lynch (at least Lynch's individualistic fare such as Mulholland Dr. and the emotional richness of its final act, for example). Huge qualification here: at first glance the two could not appear more dissimilar, as they use their unique talents to seemingly different ends (and have different perspectives on humanity in general – Lynch favors the darker, Green the kinder). However, I suspect they are kindred spirits: with the aid of gifted musicians, cinematographers, and an apparent distrust of spoken language, the two create moods and textures that often achieve such raw, heightened emotions and delicacy that the truths they expose register in places that I cannot adequately describe. Very few filmmakers possess the mastery of the means by which to accomplish this sort of high wire act successfully – at least for me, anyway – and I could not help but think of the parallels while revisiting All the Real Girls. (This is not to suggest that they do not occasionally misstep. They do, and Girls has its fair share of awkward, precious moments - think clowns - but such are the risks of this sort of filmmaking.)
This is precisely the reason why some people "get" filmmakers like Malick, Lynch, and Green and others do not. It is not a matter of understanding on any consciously detached or intellectual level, but rather one of temporary surrender. Accordingly, those seeking explanations are therefore doomed to never finding them. (Please note that no value judgments are intended.) These films dictate that they be felt as intended and analyzed later, and I have no idea as to what makes one receptive to their expressionism and another not. Viewers who are not susceptible to – and who do not feature – such films will find no comfort here. All I know is that apparently I am – and I do – and for that, I am grateful. Otherwise, I would have despised this film.
Video: Presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, All the Real Girls is given a very good transfer. Tim Orr's rich landscapes (even the ones strewn with old cars and appliances put out to pasture) are beautifully rendered, blacks are rich and deep, and both color saturation and flesh tones are well presented. For a low budget affair heavy on visual atmosphere, All the Real Girls looks quite good.
Audio: Presented in a DD 5.1 mix, All the Real Girls sounds very good as well. The moody, ethereal score by Michael Linnen and David Wingo is given a fine mix, and the surround channels are given a nicely discreet workout. There are also a few instances (such as in the car racing sequence) where the track is powerfully thrust to the fore and it admirably rises to the challenge. Dialogue is generally easy to hear, although Green borrows a page from Robert Altman's book by utilizing overlapping dialogue (which is to say that the occasional murkiness is intentional). Very nicely done.
This release also features French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles.
Extras: Included in this release are:
A full length feature commentary with director David Gordon Green and actor / writer Paul Schneider. The duo, who have been friends since college, have an easy rapport and their conversational tone appears to be based on mutual respect and admiration. Green especially comes across as very generous, and the commentary is in many ways as unhurried as the film itself. Still, it provides a good listen, and any excuse to look at the film again is fine by me;
Two theatrical trailers, one for All the Real Girls and the other for Love Liza;
Four deleted scenes, largely comprised of the character Bust-Ass (Danny McBride, used for comic relief); if brevity is indeed the soul of wit, then Green has excellent judgment;
Lastly, also included is a documentary entitled Improv and Ensemble: the Evolution of a Film (18:53) that features interviews with Green, Schneider, and Deschanel, among others. Green appears as passionate about his own particular brand of filmmaking as he is working with trusted friends, and his refusal to yield his concerns comes across as heartfelt rather than posturing. Schneider is also well presented, and hearing him speak provides some surprising insight as to just how much acting he was actually doing in the film (his performance is so good that his demeanor here is a bit jarring). The short tends to be a bit too congratulatory in tone, and the background music used – in this context – tend to cheapen the experience, especially when contrasted with the earnestness of the enterprise as a whole.
Final Thoughts: Gentle, lyrical, and a beauty to behold, All the Real Girls is a deceptively simple romantic tale with a sum much greater than its parts. Moreover, its success is even more surprising given the relatively young age of its creators – its wistful, poetic tone and cumulative wisdom are so knowing that it is nearly impossible to imagine that Green and Schneider have not lived longer. This is one of those rare instances in which romance, coming of age, and regret actually – and effortlessly – ooze from the film. Very highly recommended.