set in a zone of hot white as-phalt and greasy train tracks, George Washington has been described as Gummo by Terrence Malick. That's good as far as it goes. Like a Malick movie, this film is languorous and wide open. It begins with a voice-over spoken by a child of uncommon stillness.
"I like to go to beautiful places," the voice says, "where there's waterfalls and empty fields."
George Washington goes to those places. It's the story of a group of mainly black kids in small-town North Carolina. In a series of episodes both intimate and public, it finds in those beautiful places grace, children's wisdom and an accidental death.
In interviews, Green locates his aesthetic influence in the best of 70s Hollywood humanism, specifically the line running from Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool in 1969 to Robert Redford's Ordinary People in 1980.
He might have added Charles Burnett's Killer Of Sheep and Carl Franklin's short film Punk.
This is fertile turf, and George Washington's mood and introspection are enormously satisfying. It features black kids with a sensitivity you never see in other movies. The lead character, George, even has a soft head. He protects it with a football helmet that he wears everywhere. And like all the kids in this film, George speaks with a surprising gentility. Green's screenplay is filled with formal southernisms far outside the slips and slides of pop vernacular. It's the verbal equivalent of the film's graceful slow-motion shots.
But there's a problem in all this. The children in the lead roles often fail to make Green's language their own. Donald Holden, who plays George, lapses into line readings rather than speech. His performance is unconvincing because it feels disconnected from the import of Green's words.
But maybe I'm still looking for naturalism, and there's nothing naturalistic about this film. Green and cinematographer Tim Orr rejected the thin, jittery presence of digital video in favour of 35mm Cinemascope. But the richer, chemical depth of film is played against a stark lighting plan.
Most of the outdoor scenes are shot in bright, midday light, and the interiors are lit harshly from overhead, too. This is exactly the opposite of what Terrence Malick would do. He famously shot nearly all of Days Of Heaven at twilight's magic hour.
Likewise, the wide-screen frame offers more dramatic compositional choices but a tighter emotional register. Wide-screen emphasizes horizontal distance. If you see a character's whole body in a 'Scope film, that person must be far away. If you see his whole face, the rest of the frame must be filled with something else, even if it's empty space. In a 'Scope movie, a character rarely gets to dominate the frame. The result, though subliminal, is emotional distance.
All of these choices, plus a soundtrack full of ominous, rising synth drones, put the characters and the world of this film at an aesthetic remove. This was the first complaint when I saw George Washington in Greece, at the Thessaloniki Film Festival. Now, Greeks are more skeptical of America than any other Europeans, but this audience was dead-on.
In an online festival journal, Green recalls the reception in Thessaloniki as his most controversial. They called the film "everything from "authentic' to "ridiculous.'"
Green sometimes gets grief because he's white and his characters are black. His response on race in Thessaloniki was naive -- "I didn't want that to be an issue" -- but weirdly refreshing.
In George Washington, he's put a rare group of complex, introspective black characters on the screen. These kids are preteens. At that age race consciousness is often inchoate and unspoken. But it's there.
And Green fails to pay close attention to the rhythms of real children. These kids feel deep, but false.
GEORGE WASHINGTON written and directed by David Gordon Green, produced by Green, Sacha W. Mueller and Lisa Muskat, with Donald Holden, Candace Evanofski, Curtis Cotton III, Eddie Rouse, Paul Schneider and Damian Jewan Lee. 89 minutes. Opens Friday (July 27). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 89. Rating: NNN