Immediately upon the release of his feature-length debut, George Washington, 25-year-old David Gordon Green was likened to the poet laureate of American independent cinema, Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, etc.). Malick’s influence is apparent throughout George Washington and while the comparison is apt Green was by no means a brash, young imitator.
Only a few scenes into George Washington and Green’s cinematic intentions and ambitions become evident. This film is a declaration of his talent and a notice that he is no longer a student of American cinema but a deserving member of the highest order. Like Malick, Green has a preference for long, meditative storytelling.
George Washington is a ruminative film and it eschews traditional rules of storytelling. Green favors the elliptical over the literal and is more concerned with establishing atmosphere. Words spoken are less important than words omitted.
The film is set in a small, deeply impoverished North Carolina town. The town’s residents are the unlikely (and unlucky) survivors from the rusting of America’s industrial belt. Large, corroded manufacturing plants dot the landscape with a haunting seduction. Although neglect and decay are pervasive in George Washington, Green does not anchor his story in ruin.
George Washington centers on a group of five young teens and children as they deal with life, love and tragedy. George Richardson (Daniel Holden), a shy young boy, has a physical handicap that both limits and distinguishes him from his peers. He is soft-spoken, cautious and emotionally alert. Nasia (Candace Evanosfski) is a self-assured young girl who doesn’t quite understand that she is not yet a woman. She has just broken up with the hopelessly infatuated Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) because she needs a more “serious” companion. Her favor turns to the lonely dreamer, George, whom she views as being more mature and attentive than Buddy.
Buddy’s heartbreak prompts an intervention by Vernon (Damien Jewan Lee) who is the group’s self-appointed protector. Slightly older and physically more aware than the others Vernon also looks after Sonya (Rachael Handy), a tiny wisp of a girl who is more stray than member. The wounds of deprivation are evident on each of these children, but they do not ask for or even conceive of being pitied.
The adult characters in this story are just as lost and isolated as the children. Paul Schneider (All the Real Girls, Parks and Recreations) plays Rico Rice, a railroad worker who befriends Buddy. Rico is neither a father figure nor is he exactly a substitute big brother. Rather, he seems to be in perpetual conversation with himself. Rico’s discussions with Buddy differ little than his exchanges with his adult friends.
The wrenching poverty that cloaks this film is heart-breaking but it does not strangle. Green shines a sympathetic light on this overlooked land and its people, but his cautious method never slips into reductive pathos. For all its unvarnished authenticity George Washington is enchanting and immersive. Green punctuates truth with beguiling oddity and allows the viewer to enter a pure and distinct world.
In addition to Green’s impressive command of storytelling is the visual layout of the film. David Orr (Green’s longtime cinematographer) bathes George Washington with the infested golden sun of the American South. His imagery is languid, melancholic, slightly menacing and always glorious.
A key ingredient to this film is Green’s incorporation of non-professional actors. With the exception of a few adult actors (notablySchneider) the cast is largely untrained. Although, there are many moments that spark with a gentle, unforced power from this authenticity there are also several disjointed scenes that interrupt the careful rhythm of the film.
There is little doubt that George Washington is the precious child of a first time director. Every shot from the opening frame is crafted and deliberate. The film’s pace is slow, the dialogue intentionally meanders and there is no neat summation. Green is not interested in literal structure; he is more concerned with exploration. He may occasionally get lost in his search but that is to be expected and, most importantly, enjoyed.
George Washington has recently been re-released by the Criterion Collection. Oddly, though, this special two-disc DVD edition differs little from its original issue back in 2002. There are a host of extras including director commentary, deleted scenes, interviews, and a reunion of the young cast members. Technical improvements have been made and the film’s audio and visual elements are far stronger in this presentation than in any previous issue.
This is not a perfect movie, nor is it even the most accomplished debut by a young filmmaker. Yet, what distinguishes George Washington from the mass of so many other debut films is its soul. George Washington is a promise. It’s a promise that within all the necessary cracks of life there remains an unbroken strength. Whether you choose to call it Art is irrelevant so long as you allow for the possibility of experiencing it.
Despite its flaws, perhaps even because of them, Green’s George Washington remains a singular, exemplary piece of American cinema.