All the Real Girls (2002)

“I guess the story for All the Real Girls came from living life and relationships, you know with mothers and friends and fathers and brothers and uncles and girlfriends, everything hat’s kind of a big part of growing up, and various ages. I was always looking for a movie that captured a genuine feel of being young and being in love, and kind of the frustrations of figuring out who you are and where you’re headed.” David Gordon Green looks young and slightly tired as he describes the conception of his film, All the Real Girls. He’s speaking in a bowling alley, the set for one of the film’s briefest and most engaging scenes.

Other speakers in the talking-heads documentary, “Improv and Ensemble: The Evolution of a Film,” included on Columbia’s new DVD, are co-writer and star Paul Schneider and Zooey Deschanel, whom Green describes as “someone who is far more special and intriguing than who I had written it for, definitely. Zooey just had something that was worth investigating.” Or, as Schneider puts it, “David and I are not smart enough to come up with a character that’s as complex as Zooey is.”

The movie begins with focus precisely on this point: 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 All the Real Girls (winner of a Jury Prize for Emotional Truth at 2003’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 palm. 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 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.

As Schneider and Green note on the DVD’s commentary track, Deschanel wanted to bring in some of the “bad girl poetry, some of her experience from the pretensions of her college days.” As the commentary track demonstrates repeatedly, they all shared ideas and worked together on the film, wanting to be surprised by and generous with another. Also evident in their remarks is their respect for one another, shared sense of humor, and affection for the film. They do what filmmakers usually do on commentary tracks — they break down shots or recall rehearsals that led to certain gestures — but Green and Schneider also converse like the friends and collaborators they are, creating a rhythm that resembles that of the film. So, they note Tip’s pleather fanny pack and bouffant hairdo, even the “glass menagerie” reference in the elephant he picks while lecturing Noel — all this by way of understanding the character. They love details.

In All the Real Girls, Paul hides the relationship with Noel from Tip as long as possible. At the same time, he 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 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.

Green describes their filmmaking process as “Just freestyling, a little bit. A lot of that has to do with the level of improv on the set and before the set. In preproduction, we’d rehearse it and come up with new ideas and ways to spin things, new inflections and new hesitations that we’d really incorporate into the foundation of the project. And let it feel like an organic structure or kind of being.”

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 one called Bust-Ass (Danny McBride III); 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 so engaging. 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 defies conventional expectations of girls and boys.

“I want them to have to design a new label at Blockbuster Video for my movies, because they don’t fit into comedies or dramas or action. I think five minutes into this film, people are just gonna be like. ‘What the hell’s goin’ on here”‘ And then, an hour and a half later they’re gonna walk out and have something to think about a few chuckles.” The DVD offers glimpses into how the structure evolves, with Green’s commentary track, and several deleted scenes. All of these — for whatever reasons — feature Bust-Ass, whom Green calls the film’s “comic relief.” One is obviously best left out, an “action scene” of sorts, that is, a fight between Paul and Bust-Ass, in which the latter hits the former “in the nuts,” and afterwards feels all kinds of bad: “I didn’t mean to hurt you dude, you’re one of my friends!” Others have Bust-Ass in a bar trying to propose to his cousin, saying only the wrong things to her; Bust-Ass and Paul discussing “imitation” girls who wear too much makeup and “clothes like that”; and another discussion of a girl’s “awesome” ass.

None of these scenes is missed in the film, which underlines the precision of its making. For all Green and Schneider’s fondness for improv, surprises, and taking whatever weather comes on a given day, All the Real Girls is that rarity, a complete film.