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All the Real Girls
Director: David Gordon Green
Screenplay: David Gordon Green (story by David Gordon Green and Paul Schneider)
Stars: Paul Schneider (Paul), Zooey Deschanel (Noel), Patricia Clarkson (Elvira Fine), Shea Whigham (Tip), Benjamin Mouton (Leland), Maurice Compte (Bo), Danny McBride (Bust-Ass), Bartow Church (Geoff), Maya Ling Pruitt (Feng Shui)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2003
Country: US
All the Real Girls

Benjamin Disraeli once wrote that the magic of first love is our illusion that it can never end, a sentiment that is perfectly captured in writer/director David Gordon Green’s heartbreaking sophomore effort, All the Real Girls. Set in the same decaying industrial area of North Carolina featured in his debut film, 2000’s George Washington, All the Real Girls sincerely and tenderly tells the well-worn story of young people discovering true love for the first time—a story that’s been told a million times before, but still maintains its relevance due to its simple universality.

But, because it is a story that is so well-known, there are myriad pitfalls and clichés, all of which Green ably avoids by remaining true to his characters and their emotions. The first pitfall Green steers clear of is the “meet-cute,” the usually grating scene in which the two main characters first encounter each other. Instead, the film fades up with Paul (Paul Schneider, who also cowrote the story with Green) and Noel (Zooey Deschanel) staring at each other. “What’re you looking at?” he asks her, and she replies by asking him why he hasn’t kissed her yet. We begin, in a sense, en media res, but it works because we don’t need to see the very beginnings. What matters here is the heart of the relationship, not its origin.

Paul is in his early 20s and still lives at home with his mother (Patricia Clarkson), who works as a clown at birthday parties and hospitals, and his uncle (Benjamin Mouton), who works as a mechanic. Paul is not terribly bright and doesn’t have much of a future ahead of him, and he has spent most of the last decade of his life systematically bedding and then dumping virtually every girl in the small mill town in which he lives. We get the sense that he doesn’t do it out of maliciousness, but rather out of simple ignorance—having never experienced real love before, he doesn’t fully comprehend just how heinous his behavior has been.

That all changes when he begins spending time with Noel, who is 18 and just returned home after several years in an all-girls boarding school. Like Paul, she lacks experience in love, but unlike him she knows nothing of sex. She is also the younger sister of Tip (Shea Whigham, who looks a bit like a young Bill Pullman), Paul’s best friend and “partner in crime” who doesn’t want Paul spending time with his virginal sister because he knows his history all too well. Yet, Paul and Noel are determined to be together, even if it means the destruction of Paul and Tip’s friendship.

Hard as that is, for Paul it is worth it because he finds himself redeemed by his feelings for Noel, which is why he refuses to sleep with her. For the first time, he feels regret for what he has done to other girls (“I’ve done ugly things,” he tells her), and he wants to make up for it by making this time different. Noel does the one thing for him that no one else in his life could: She makes him want to be a better person.

All the Real Girls unfolds slowly, building its characters in a series of scenes that have the ebb and flow of a life without aim; sometimes they seem to end too soon, sometimes go on a little too long. Green writes extraordinarily spare dialogue that still conveys a great deal of depth and emotion. His characters talk like we would expect them too—hesitantly, dreamily, awkwardly, sometimes lyrically. None of them are particularly well educated, and some of them (particularly Paul’s beer-drinking buddies) border on outright ignorance, yet they are all recognizably human and deeply sympathetic. The most beautiful moments between Paul and Noel are the ones in which they’re trying to express their feelings to each other, but manage only to scratch the surface with their words. The performances by Schneider and Deschanel are perfect in this respect, because where their dialogue fails, their eyes and body language fill in. It is, in the very best meaning of the word, poetry.

Green and his cinematographer Tim Orr (who also shot George Washington) fill the widescreen with imagery that is at once beautiful and tragic, much like Paul and Noel’s relationship. The characters are trapped in a dead-end town that is barely holding on to the remnants of its fading textile industry, yet Green finds strange beauty in its isolation and gradual decay. He and Orr capture sunlight in ways that suggest hope even in the most dire circumstances, and the simple use of imagery reflected in the glassy surface of a pond brings to mind thoughts of regeneration. All the Real Girls is an extraordinary ode to the power of first love and its ability to redeem, even when it involves heartbreak that, in retrospect, was inevitable. Green understands all too well that, like film itself, first love is about illusion, but that in no way dispels its power to change lives.

Overall Rating: (4)

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