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ALL THE REAL GIRLS(director/writer: David Gordon Green; screenwriter: story by Paul Schneider; cinematographer: Tim Orr; editors: Zene Baker/Steven Gonzales; music: David Wingo/Michael Linnen; cast: Paul Schneider (Paul), Patricia Clarkson (Elvira), Zooey Deschanel (Noel), Benjamin Mouton (Leland), Shea Wingham (Tip), Danny McBride (Bust-Ass), Maurice Compte (Bo), Maya Ling Pruitt (Feng Shui), Bartow Church (Geoff), Heather McComb (Mary-Margaret); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Jean Doumanian/Lisa Muskat; Sony Picture Classics; 2003)

“The characters were so real.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

All The Real Girls tackles the stinging emotional problems of young love in a lazy small North Carolina mill town (it was filmed in Marshall, N.C.), where the future looks bleak for those who made no plans for the future. The town has a timeless 1950s look as there were no Wal-Marts or malls, just a nondescript bowling alley, a lounge, a car repair shop, a dirt stock car racing track, and a cafe. The director and screenwriter David Gordon Green (“George Washington“) is a 27-year-old graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts (he was classmates with his cowriter and lead actor Paul Schneider and with the film’s supporting actor Danny McBride).

In his second feature Green achieves the same unhurried, meandering style of his first film. It was also set in a small lazy Southern town, but this venture is more ambitious. It centers around a group of white idlers and drinking buddies in their young twenties. Even though it is far from flawless, in some ways it is even more successful than Green’s flawless and acclaimed debut in 2000. The director proves he is talented and that his first success wasn’t an accident, but his full potential has not matured as of yet.

All The Real Girls has the smell of home-cooking and is without the bluster and formulaic devices of a Hollywood production nor does it have the eccentric pretensions of some indie films. It grabs you gently to get you involved with these stuck-in-their-ways redneck working class youths as they stumble through their first growing pangs of adulthood. Mr. Green is onto something in his intense look at some present day Southern towns and takes risks as his romantic tale flirts with soap opera clichés that nearly sink it, but the romantic mood lingered and held this viewer’s interest despite several missteps. The lyrical tale was sincere, unpredictable and offbeat, and the characters were so real.

It’s a beautifully shot film by Tim Orr, in the style of a photography coffee book. It sets an hypnotic arty mood, but at times it drifts off and seems just plain foolish. The film felt sluggish because it was loaded down with too much symbolism–it concludes with the hero looking forlornly at the town’s reflection appearing upside down in the river. But it overcomes such obstacles because its understated poetry smoothes over such unneeded heavy-handedness. What lingers long after the conclusion, for this winner of the Jury Prize for Emotional Truth at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is the pain transmitted by the star-crossed lovers who are so tightly wrapped that their insides are bursting. Their melodramatic love story is played out amidst the glistening town river and the visibly distant majestic Smoky Mountains, where nature is stunningly contrasted against the ugly mill that supports the town but saps the lifeforce from the locals. The intelligent rock music from a few original scores by David Wingo and Michael Linnen and a number of songs performed by a wide range of artists (Will Oldham, Sparklehorse, Mogwai, the Promise Ring, and Mark Olson and the Creekdippers), adds a down-home flavor to the heart throbbing pulse of this poignant and urgent tale.

Paul (Schneider) has lived all his 22 years in town and has developed a reputation as an uncaring stud, loving the town girls and leaving ’em when he gets what he wants. Spunky Noel (Deschanel) is an 18-year-old virgin who has been away to boarding school for the last 6 years and has returned because she doesn’t want to go to college and write “bad girl-poetry.” Upon meeting Paul, her brother Tip’s (Wingham) best friend and partner in lady chasing, she stares intently at him and when asked by the almost inarticulate Paul why the cute girl with the deep penetrating eyes responds by asking why he never kissed her. Paul ponders the question for a seemingly long time and finally manages to tell her in a stutter– it’s because of Tip.

The lackadaisical Paul has never thought out anything about his life and tinkers with cars in a dead-end car repair job helping out his kindly widowed uncle (Mouton). He lives with his aging single mom (Clarkson), who tries to forget her misery by dressing up as a clown and entertaining sick children in the hospital. She looks sadly out of place wearing her clown costume at home.

It’s through the inexpressive Paul’s eyes that we view the film. He has fallen madly in love with the richest girl in his group, and he wants this experience to be lasting and different than his other flings. So he decides that he will not make love to her even though that’s what she wants. But she frightens him by saying she can talk to him and trusts him completely. Neither Paul or Noel really know what it is to be in love, they are both so damaged and torn apart because they have hurt others and feel so guilty that they hurt themselves. Noel when she was a youngster killed a young boy in a boat accident and punished herself by scarring her body with fish hooks, while Paul can’t face himself because he hurt so many of his girlfriends. He sleeps with Noel a few times, but they don’t have sex as they instead talk that silly lover patter and look intently at each other knowing there’s probably no one else around whom they can love in the same way. Though Paul is such a blank, that it seems a shame that the energetic Noel is so set on giving herself completely to someone so uncommunicative.

Atop the emotional pressures, Paul’s’s also under the constant scrutiny of his skeptical childhood friends and has caught the ire of Tip. Gossips have enraged Tip so much, that he wants to beat his friend to death. When Tip gets the chance, he just rants that he’s no longer his best friend — not even in the top ten. The other group members hang out and drop their philosophy of life on Paul with mixed results. Bust-Ass (McBride) is crude and acts as the foil who tries to move in on Paul’s girl, but is unwisely used by her as a means to get Paul jealous. Bo (Compte) professes that his deepest concern is whether he should grow a beard.

The film’s tender romantic theme emerges darkened after held up for further scrutiny by the ambition-less hero dreamer. “All the Real Girls” benefits from its unrushed pace and its long setup to show how the mystery of sex has been lost by the shiftless townies and made mundane, but the act itself is still viewed by the males as a means of possession and a source of jealousy.

The story would have been stronger if it hadn’t made such a big deal of Noel losing her virginity and had stayed with the two to see if they could have had a real relationship after satisfying their lustful longings. But with that said, there were some very moving and unforgettable scenes that caught a slice of these bumbling youths trying to come to terms with their unfulfilled existence.

The film had the courage to tell its story by resisting the temptation to give in to the melodramatic incident presented as a possible turning point and it refused to find an easy solution in which to make its exit, as it ambiguously concludes by showing that love is not always the answer to maintaining a relationship. “Real Girls” is helped greatly by the engaging performance of Zooey Deschanel (Paul Schneider lost focus at times and even though he gave a convincing performance his lack of acting experience showed). Ms. Deschanel gives the story its heartfelt voice.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”