All the Real Girls (2002)

1969-12-31 (Limited release)

Noel (Zooey Deschanel) stands awkwardly, looking away. Slouching near her in an alley, Paul (Paul Schneider) tries to get her attention. “What are you lookin’ at?” he asks. “I was just lookin’ at that old bucket and thinking, I like you… ’cause I can say what’s on my mind.”

It’s hard to imagine a simpler introduction to two characters falling in love. For six minutes at the beginning of David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls (winner of a Jury Prize for Emotional Truth at this year’s Sundance Film Festival), the camera remains fixed on Noel and Paul, watching them flirt with a delicacy rarely articulated in the movies. She pauses, wonders how come he hasn’t kissed her yet, and he admits his concern: “I don’t want it to be like other girls.” Noel has a solution. He can kiss her hand. Shy and enthralled, Paul makes a joke, blowing the dust off her hand as traffic sounds in the far-away background. When they do kiss, it’s not at all like other girls.

One difference is that Noel has things on her mind, and she’s willing to share them with Paul, best friend to her carouser big brother Tip (Shea Wigham). Another difference is that he’s ready to hear it, and even to put into words some things on his mind. For one, he’s got a reputation around their rural North Carolina hometown as a womanizer. Noel, feeling vaguely exotic and mostly self-assured after six years away at boarding school, doesn’t worry too much about all that. Newly freed from the constraints of schedules, academic expectations, and an all-girls environment, she’s restless and curious.

Paul knows enough not to flaunt the budding relationship in front of Trip. But he also has the sort of confidence that afflicts good-looking boys used to getting what he wants. The inevitable confrontation is less about gallantry and loyalty than it is about fear: Tip fears Paul will treat his sister as he has treated other girls, indeed, as Tip, his “partner in crime,” has also treated them. And their falling out leads to Tip’s mustering of all his anger: “We ain’t friends no more,” he yells as he stumbles off, comic and heartbreaking at the same time. “You ain’t even in my top 10!”

For his part, Paul fears that he might actually feel something approximating commitment to this girl, a feeling that involves risk as well as a fundamental generosity, quite beyond his experience. His ignorance of his own capacity for trust makes the relationship at once thrilling, gradual, and eventually, excruciating.

Unfolding in a deceptively relaxed way, the film resembles Green’s first feature, the brilliant George Washington. This time, the deliberate narrative rhythm and poignant inserts of rusting machinery or a two-legged dog are less startling (most courtesy of the gifted cinematographer Tim Orr), perhaps more assured. All the Real Girls doesn’t quite achieve the surprising poetry or gorgeous inventiveness of the first film, which memorably explored the responses of a group of kids to a friend’s sudden, accidental death. But Girls has a more recognizable project in mind, breaking down a genre in order to complicate the very questions genres evoke (why are structures comfortable? what’s left out of formula?). And in this, it succeeds completely, such that the exposed pieces of the “youthful romance” become infinitely more compelling than the usual framework.

All the Real Girls focuses on the couple’s gradual working toward trust and intimacy — she’s a virgin, and he, as that first scene suggests, wants this time to be unlike any other. And so, they talk a lot, on mountaintops, in cars, by the beatdown textile mill where most of the locals work. They talk about Tip, their pasts, their musical interests, their nebulous hopes for the future. “Sometimes I scare myself,” she says, “but I’m not scared with you.”

Some of their concerns are revealed less by what they say (which remains, for the most part, focused on how they feel at any given moment), than by their conversations’ visual dimensions. In one striking instance, Paul, worried that Noel’s impending weekend away will leave him lonely, decides he must, right then, dance his joy over knowing her, but also insists that she not watch him. This puts their private disjunction on display for you alone: the shot remains steady, as they first lean on one another in a bowling alley lane, and then, as she turns her back and he jigs, baggy jeans and goofy arm swinging saying more about their last “whole” moment together than any verbal excursion could.

At the same time, Noel and Paul also work separately toward self-understandings, revealed in their interactions with others. Noel finds herself pursued by other boys, including Bo (Maurice Compte); he pushes her to choose her “Number Two,” if, in some alternative universe, both her Number One and choosing no one were impossible. She looks appropriately amused by this game, even as it reveals the way relationships tend to work, even among those who consider themselves more “sophisticated” than this crew appears — as prizes to be awarded, or maybe moves in a game, as if calculations and decisions can be rational.

Paul’s relationship with his mother Elvira (Patricia Clarkson) may be the most telling of these, in large part because Clarkson is such a careful and engaging performer (see also: Far From Heaven and High Art). A professional clown, Elvira occasionally corrals Paul into donning a wig and makeup, to help her out at the hospital’s children’s ward, where his awkwardness is given something like a proper framework. She appreciates Paul’s confidence and charisma, but remains skeptical of his sense of privilege and recklessness. Elvira loves her son, but sees in him a reflection of her own experience: “You’re not educated, honest, or strong. You don’t have any faith, like every other man that’s ever been in my life.”

Paul wants to be different, and insists (or maybe hopes) that Noel “makes me decent.” Still, his perspective is limited, and he’s not a little confused by his own unexpectedly urgent desire to be any other way. This confusion leads Paul to be tentative with Noel, who’s feeling more than ready to explore her sexual desires. When he wonders out loud how she can accept his past peccadilloes, she assures him, “I know I’m the best girl for you.”

As true as their emotions seem at any given moment, Paul and Noel are also subject to inevitably shifting fears and needs. And it’s in the particular crisis that affects them that All the Real Girls challenges viewer expectations of girls and boys.