All the Real Girls: Rubes in Love

Hick-town romance is treated a little too seriously.

One of the real pleasures of David Gordon Green's auspicious first feature, George Washington, was how it granted sudden offhand wisdom to characters that might've been considered mere Southern yokels. They chewed tobacco, worked with their hands, and had funny accents, but they were anything but uncouth. In his disappointing follow-up, All the Real Girls (which opens Friday, April 4 at the Metro), we see some of the same faces and small-town types, plus even more of the solemnity. Washington balanced that tone with goofiness and tragedy, while Girls errs on the side of earnest young love. It pulls you into a passionate universe of two, which certainly reflects the sullen ardor of 18-year-old Noel (Zooey Deschanel) and 22-year-old Paul (Paul Schneider), but leaves the rest of the movie's players reeling in uncertain orbit. Paul's a lady-killer, perpetually "the asshole ex-boyfriend," as one of his three best pals puts it; so naturally he swoons for the purity of virginal Noel, who returns home after six years at a girls' boarding school. "She makes me decent," Paul says unconvincingly, like a rake suddenly seized with the idea of reform. His mother (Patricia Clarkson) and buddies are skeptical, and none more so than the scary, volatile man-child Tip (the excellent Shea Wingham), who happens to be Noel's overprotective older brother. It sounds like tragedy in the making, but when Tip raises his fists, it's to beat up someone else by proxy, as a kind of warning. He looks more upset by the punches than his victim; then he sputters at Paul, "We aren't best friends anymore; you're not even in my top 10!" You laugh because the violence has been defused (sort of), but Girls' energy gets defused, too. Beneath the droning indie-rock soundtrackby Sparklehorse, Mogwai, the Promise Ring, and othersand arty time-lapse skies, Paul and Noel begin to feel more trapped by the movie's sheer weighty somberness than any small-town constraints. As the two mope and fret about whether to go all the way or not and what their friends and families might think, viewers will be thinking, "Just get in the car and leave, for God's sake!" Meanwhile, everyone else is stewing in their homespun nobility, like overdone squirrel-brain soup: Tip's revealed to be more sensitive than sadistic; Paul's other pals offer sage cracker counsel; children, including a cute little retarded boy, even lend their advice. It's pretty hokey for an art-house film, like Gus Van Sant on valium. Then Green pulls out the stops by putting poor Clarkson, yes, in clown paint (OK, she's a clown who entertains sick kids in the hospital), which meansyou guessed itthe clown must cry! And the moment isn't even meant ironically in a Red Skelton-painting kind of way; worse, it seems to be sincere. Girls does have its moments of ingenuous beauty and feeling, along with some sly, welcome laughs. (I particularly liked the world's slowest stock-car racer and the swimming lessons for a dog.) But the movie's lack of affectation finally seems smotheringly affected. Like Paul's casual Casanova sincerity, it's just another strategy for getting in your pants.

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