FAULKNER FREAK SHOWS are all too common in Hollywood depictions of the South (see The Gift), but David Gordon Green has resolutely chosen to emphasize the region's quieter qualities in his remarkably poised debut feature. In an industrial section of an unnamed city (actually Winston-Salem, N.C.), an interracial pack of motley, unsupervised kids scrambles around scrap metal heaps, railroad tracks, and swimming holes. They clutch kittens, dogs, frogs, and even ferrets with that special inscrutable affinity children have for the animal world. Surrounded by dilapidated squalor, they're the opposite of carefree, behaving instead with uncommon, almost grown-up gravity. In one scene, 13-year-old Nasia (Candace Evanofski) precociously asks 12-year-old Buddy (Curtis Cotton III), "Do you think we're gonna be together forever?" It's only puppy love, but Green treats the relationship seriously, without patronizing or idealizing their youthful longing.
written and directed by David Gordon Green with Donald Holden, Candace Evanofski, Curtis Cotton III, and Eddie Rouse runs February 16-23 at Varsity
Green presents this mysterious, insular world of childhood in fragmentary detail, not providing an obvious story line or easy connections between characters. Parents are mostly absent; last names are unspoken; scene follows scene like so many Diane Arbus snapshots scattered on a table. Similar to Truffaut's The 400 Blows, the utterly fresh and unpredictable George Washington paints a complex, unsentimental, but magical picture of youth. Its serious young protagonist, 12-year-old orphan George (Donald Holden), emerges only gradually from his peers. Nasia narrates his deeds in past-tense voice-over, explaining, "He just wanted greatness." To that end—after an act of bravery—George dons the cape and costume of a comic book superhero, managing to appear both ridiculous and admirable to onlookers.
Handsomely shot in wide-screen CinemaScope, George Washington carries the undeniable but not always successful air of artiness. Obviously influenced by Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven), Green occasionally lets his pithy 89-minute film lapse into incoherence, but it never tries your patience. Just when the movie seems aimless and uneventful, its loose-knit story will take an abrupt turn: Two deaths and a car crash punctuate the kids' hazy midsummer days, while George's scary uncle (Eddie Rouse) threatens even greater violence. Again and again, however, Green defeats our expectations for simple triumph or tragedy.
For all young George's grand preoccupation with heroism and red-white-and-blue patriotism, the greenery, dirt, and rust of the kids' improvised playgrounds are the colors you remember. Those muted hues make for a portrait of childhood that's distant and immediate, ephemeral and indelible. In one haunting soliloquy, a boy declares, "All my life, people have let me down. I wish I could go to outer space. I wish I had my own planet." Thanks to this extraordinary little film, you feel transported to just such a unique and personal place.