All the Real Girls

 

Laura Clifford 

Robin Clifford 
Paul (Paul Schneider, "George Washington") is a 22 year old guy drifting through life and one woman after the next in the small North Carolina mill town he lives in with his mother (Patricia Clarkson, "Far From Heaven").  When his best friend Tip's (Shea Wingham, "Bad Company") eighteen year old sister (Zooey Deschanel, "Abandon") returns home from boarding school, Paul's attitude towards women undergoes a dramatic change in writer/director David Gordon Greene's "All the Real Girls."

Laura:
Gordon Greene, who won a 2003 Sundance Special Jury prize for "Emotional Honesty," suffers some sophomore slumping with his followup to "George Washington" and hot young actress Deschanel fails to make her first lead her breakthrough. "All the Real Girls" gets the central relationship right, but surrounds it with vignettes that are meaningless, confusing or too damn quirky for their own good.

Paul hangs out with his buddies Tip, Bust-Ass (Danny McBride) and Bo (Maurice Compte, "Showtime") and works at his Uncle Leland's (Benjamin Mouton, "The Whole Wide World") garage.  Paul's interest in Noel sends Tip, who takes pride in their love 'em and leave 'em ethos, into a rage which splinters the male camaraderie, but Paul's mostly interested in spending time with Noel now anyway. Paul and Noel seem to bring out the best in each other and fall into comfortable conversation.  Honoring the realness of the relationship, Paul takes things slowly, postponing sex, perhaps subconsciously recognizing the fragility of love.  Noel orchestrates isolated settings suited for advancing the physical side of things, but doesn't push the issue.  When Noel goes away to a girlfriend's vacation cabin, Paul misses her with her young brother and reconnects with Tip, who, having just learned he's about to become a father, is reflecting Paul's new found maturity.  The Noel that returns, however, is not the same girl who left and the two discover that true love alone cannot sustain a relationship.

While it's a bit of a stretch to regard Schneider as the insensitive ladykiller he's cast as, the actor very capably takes us on a painful interior journey.  We see him awaken and respond to Noel's way of questioning the world and slow down to take stock of past behavior.  'I want you to understand what they hate when they see me,' he tells Noel of his past girlfriends, laying down the truth before attempting to advance beyond it.  Deschanel's portrayal of Noel is certainly natural and she projects a naive worldliness that differentiates her from her peers, but she's too low key, almost draining energy from the scenes she's in.

The supporting cast all assist in creating the small town world with Wingham and particularly McBride the standouts.  Wingham, who looks like a young Bill Pullman with a Beavis haircut, is initially all hurt, confused bluster which he contrasts nicely with dawning comprehension in his terrific scene rebonding with Paul. McBride is the comic relief as buddy Bust-Ass, who makes do with Noel's friendship while he waits in the wings for something more.  The usually terrific Clarkson, while nailing the worn down quality of a middle aged woman whose watched life's options disappear, is given a raw deal by the script which literally makes her a clown.  A nicely played scene with Schneider is undone when Clarkson must inexplicably tell him she doesn't believe his happiness.

Gordon Greene shows his weakness for artistic whimsy by conspicuously never naming his two lead characters within his film, although the end credits identify them as Paul and Noel.  The conceit is awkward, with 'the boy's' mother referring to the love of his life as 'the girl.'  His short mood bursts may work as standalone bits, but are frequently awkward within the film's context or cases of non sequitur editing (what's up with the deformed dog?).  Elvira presses Paul to put on a clown suit and join her entertaining a children's hospital ward and the scene has a weird vibe of its own, beautifully scored, but it has no connection to the rest of the movie.  Paul and Noel share an offbeat lovers' moment in a bowling alley, but the scene doesn't work because it is so artificially staged.  A nicely written piece of dialogue about mistakes in nature shows up a cute scene between Paul and his dog later in the film.

Cinematographer Tim Orr ("George Washington") captures scenes reminiscent of "Stand By Me" and "Diner" before giving way to lots of time lapse shots of clouds barreling across the sky.  Location is a major player as it was in "George Washington."

"All the Real Girls" is a disappointment but the boy at its heart embodies true emotions.

B-

Robin:
Director David Gordon Green made a debut splash with his simple, lovingly crafted film "George Washington." That story about a group of kids on the verge of adolescence during a North Carolina summer had a subtle sweetness and melancholy quality about it as the children cope with tragedy in their young lives. Green, with his second feature, stays in small-town Carolina but now deals with young adult love when womanizing Paul (Paul Schneider) falls for his best friend's virginal younger sister, Noel (Zooey Deschanel) in "All the Real Girls."

The positive hype for "All the Real Girls," coupled with the solid debut effort by Green with "George Washington," had me filled with anticipation - especially with the talented Zooey Deschanel as one of the stars. While there are some interesting factors in Green's sophomore effort, overall this tweeny love story falls flat.

The young adult male population of the small North Carolina mill town seem to be, uniformly, unemployed, over sexed and do little but hang around, smoke cigarettes and drink beer. The two main guys, Paul and Tip (Shea Whigham), have had carnal knowledge with just about every single woman in town without ever having a serious relationship arise. When Tip's sister Noel returns after years in boarding school, Paul becomes smitten with her, much to the chagrin of Tip. Paul's track record with women concerns Noel's protective brother and a rift develops between the friends. Paul, though, feels that there is something different about Noel and is content with a chaste relationship until things work themselves out. Trouble brews when Noel decides to seek a bit of sexual experience elsewhere.

The fresh honesty of "George Washington," penned by director Green, led me to expect that his follow on work in "All the Real Girls" would provide, at least, a film of similar integrity. Instead, we get a story that seems to be populated by characters that have lived in total isolation (and, perhaps, the product of serious inbreeding), becoming, it seems, emotionally retarded. The bulk of the characters, led by Paul Schneider, communicate in sentences that contain words with two or less syllables. Everyone in town is resigned to their boring life eking out a living in the local mill or collecting unemployment. When Noel returns from boarding school to the going nowhere town, the only question I have is: "Why?"

The screenplay, by Green and Schneider, is comprised of a series of disjointed vignettes of small town life from the viewpoint of the tweenies. This is loosely bundled with the romance that grows between Noel and Paul, but I could never understand why she would be attracted to such an under ambitious dork. There is little to like about most of the characters and even less to impress by the actors.

Zooey Deschanel struggles to breath some life into the proceeds but her mannered performance is forced, at best. Paul Schnieder is neither charismatic nor likable as Paul. Of the rest of the supporting cast, only Patricia Clarkson is even partially successful in giving any depth as Paul's mother, a woman who has seen the best of times go by and is relegated to performing as a clown for the kids in a local hospital with little, if any, chance of grasping a life not totally mundane.

There is one wonderful visual montage, by cinematographer Tim Orr (who also provided the soft, nicely lighted photography in "George Washington"), of the town, the surrounding mountains, the mill and the inhabitants that is lovely to watch but a non sequitur to the film. Orr's exemplary camera work is the only exceptional part of "All the Real Girls" and is outside the realm of the bland story.

I was extremely disappointed with "All the Real Girls," expecting a progression from the filmmaker from his first feature. Instead, Green's second effort pales in comparison to his debut film. I give it a C-.

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