George Washington (2000) / Drama

MPAA Rated: Not rated, but I'd rate it PG-13 for some violence and language
Running Time: 89 min.

Cast: Donald Holden, Candace Evanofski, Damian Jewan Lee, Curtis Cotton III, Rachael Handy, Paul Schneider, Eddie Rouse
Director: David Gordon Green

Screenplay: David Gordon Green
Review published February 14, 2004

George Washington 2000I find it peculiar that much of the reason I enjoyed David Gordon Green's (Undertow, Your Highness) debut feature-length film, George Washington, primarily resides in the bells and whistles aspect of the filmmaking process, and not for the guts of what usually makes independent films worthwhile.  Sumptuously photographed by Tim Orr (The Baxter, Trust the Man), there is a beauty to almost every lingering shot that makes this small story almost transcend the artifice of Green's dialogue and inchoate narrative structure.  Adding a semblance of depth to the story is the ambient music from Michael Linnen and David Wingo (All the Real Girls), sparsely orchestrated and meditatively effective, it perfectly complements Orr's dreamy cinematography, making this a fertile environment for coming-of-age tale to grow.

Green's story is either about a lot of things, or it isn't much about anything, subject to interpretation like any piece of art.  You can look at it, and you either feel something or pass it by without much interest.  If one were to write a summary on George Washington, one could say it is about a group of impoverished early teens living in a slum town in the North Carolina, where they spend their days exploring the abandoned facilities and decaying structures nearby.  This is a summer of many events, forcing the premature confrontations with some very adult issues, including redemption, love, and death, and of growing up in a hurry in an environment where the adult supervision is insufficient, if not nonexistent.

George Washington works best as a study of what it's like to be a child of poverty.  From utilizing dilapidated structures as a playground, adopting stray animals as one's pet or friend, to getting into trouble just to keep from getting bored, Green is able to work the combination of decaying scenery with the childlike imagination to show how the human need for adventure is the same not matter what walk of life you're from.  The difference here, though, is that all of the children come from dysfunctional environments which does not promote a feeling of self-worth or family, and in many ways the children have only each other to rely on for support and guidance, which causes them to make mistakes of inexperience. 

If Green had filmed real-life children in this environment, documentary style, perhaps the story itself would have been able to match up the the profundity of the ambient sights and sounds, but the stilted dialogue and unconvincing situations prove too obtrusive to dismiss.  The children have conversations about life and love, not in the way normal children might, but with the acuteness and articulation that only comes through experience and maturity -- things which 12-year-old children can have when talking to adults, but not generally as they talk to one another.  With the forced delivery of unnatural dialogue, the children struggle to appear normal, but can do little more than be typically idealized movie children, or more accurately, adult-like minds inhabiting children's bodies.

Green's narrative is the result of putting many interesting ingredients together to form the semblance of food for thought, but he shows a tendency to overcook his ideas, and the artifice that is embedded in his characters spills over into his narrative as well.  Things play out in ways that do not feel natural, from death to relationships to feelings of responsibility, there are very few times where George Washington is able to achieve authenticity.  Many have compared this film to the works of Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven), but at least Malick is able to deliver poignancy through quality acting, realistic characterizations and a story that can support his ambitiousness.  Green merely serves up ambience and feeling with little substance or credibility.

In the end, only the elegiac imagery and desolate scoring makes George Washington drive home any feeling of importance and profundity, and the film does offer several indelible moments that stay with you.  Yet, it's the kind of filmmaking that would be better served with a real script full of solidified ideas behind it, not to mention truthful dialogue backed by a more  convincing delivery.  While many viewers will think this a laborious 90 minutes to sit through, those who like artistic mood pieces filled with heavy, somber imagery will find that George Washington strikes a resonant chord.

Qwipster's rating:  

©2004 Vince Leo