Canon Entry - All the Real Girls (2003)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
Sometimes a great review can change your mind completely about a work of art. When I watched All the Real Girls for the first time not too long before writing this review, I dismissed it as mumblecore noodling even though I had mostly positive feelings towards the film. I really was expecting more from David Gordon Green, my exposure to whom was limited although I knew that I loved George Washington and appreciated Pineapple Express.
Then I read Roger Ebert’s review. He spoke so eloquently of the preciousness and folly of young love that Green explores in this film that it broke through my cynical heart and made me reconsider this film. I tried to think about what had made me so resistant to the film in the first place. Maybe because it was Green’s portrayal of a certain type of white man. Men who are so steeped in a male camaraderie that could easily turn ugly if there is no healthy outlet for it. Plus White male camaraderie has been so overdone that my mind almost automatically dismisses any movie that has it as a major subject.
In fact, much of the film could easily have belonged in a Judd Apatow produced or directed comedy. Paul (Paul Schneider) and his friends regularly brag about their supposed sexual conquests and a lot of the scenes play like Apatow scenes, with their rambling seemingly improvised banter. However, Green and his long-time cinematographer Tim Orr offset the content of the conversation with beautiful, interesting compositions and photography. For example, when we are introduced to Paul’s mother (Patricia Clarkson), she is flat on her back fixing a piano in the outdoors. My favorite may be the opening scene, which is between Paul and Noel (Zooey Deschanel) discussing in a desultory manner why Paul hasn’t kissed her yet. Both characters are in the exact center of the screen, and their conversation is so intimate and the framing so perfect that we almost feel like we are children taking comfort in the adults’ comfort.
While the film is mainly about Paul and Noel’s relationship, the rest of the film is just as desultory and lax in purpose as that opening scene. Green does not pretend that their romance is elevated in any way. Much of the dialogue is quite silly and precious, but Green does not shy away from it. A scene in a bowling alley in which they are awkwardly embracing each other is actually a nice bit of foreshadowing since this is also when Noel informs Paul that she will be going away with some friends for a while. We also get to see many scenes of the special relationship that Paul and Noel have that don’t necessarily drive the narrative forward. I was stunned when Paul asks Noel, “Did you fart?,” not because that never happens in a relationship, but because that’s exactly what happens in a close relationship. Even if it’s funny, it’s also so honest.
Green freely switches back and forth between characters, dedicating time to getting to know side characters such as Paul’s parents and Noel’s young brother (who has Down syndrome and, more importantly, a special loving bond with Paul). Romance or romantic comedy is such an intensely solipsistic genre that these movies tend to the view that no one exists outside of the couple themselves, much like the annoying couple themselves. This is probably why these movies are often intensely irritating, Green clearly cares about portraying the relationship faithfully, but he’s just as interested in exploring the physical and emotional world that his characters exist in.
Even the male camaraderie that I didn’t care for is important because it helps to delineate Paul’s character. Paul is notorious for being the womanizer of this little town, and as we get to know his friends and his family, we start to understand why he might be this way. Perhaps he acts this way because he is expected to. Clearly, the guys who hang around him both idolize and look down on his womanizing. Some real drama happens when it gets intensely personal for Tip (Shea Wigham) who is Noel’s brother, who is fiercely overprotective of Noel. This does not become a major obstacle in the couple’s relationship, however, although a more conventional movie would have made a bigger deal out of this.
So many movies try really hard to make you love the main couple and to be really invested in their relationship. It’s common sense, why would you want to watch a couple of unlikable boors for two hours? If the characters in more conventional movies do something wrong, it is because of some easily explained misunderstanding that could have been solved if the two characters had actually talked to each other for more than a movie minute.
Green, on the other hand, is not afraid to let his characters show their ugly sides. I did not always love Paul and Noel although I think for the most part I had great affection for them. I hated Paul’s insecurity and inability to be honest with his emotions. Noel’s youth makes her do a potentially unforgivable thing, and there’s a good case that these two should not end up with each other. Even their argument after Noel reveals what she has done is so stilted and inelegant that I wanted to rip my hair out a little, but that’s how those types of arguments usually sound.
Green knew exactly what he was doing because, in the end, I could understand and empathize with these two, if not forgive them for their transgressions. This may be one of the most accurate portrayals of young love that I have ever seen in a movie. It may also be the most non-condescending one since it knows that young love is a powerful force that will overwhelm you and make you see the world so differently.