Though this is only the second film from writer-director David Gordon Green, it certainly shows that he’s already developed a distinctive style. Like his first feature, the moody, elegiac “George Washington,” about a group of children involved in an accidental death during a lazy summer’s day, “All the Real Girls” is a piece of what might be called poetic naturalism. It tells a fairly standard story–a romance between a young stud and the sister of his best friend–in an unorthodox way, situating it among the lower-class denizens of a timeless southern town. More importantly, the style is loose and elliptical; the picture is shaped to appear unstructured reveling in grace notes that don’t add directly to the story but are designed to provide context and fullness of characterization. Green’s soft-toned, deceptively casual approach may touch some viewers deeply with its apparent simplicity and resolute refusal to conform to ordinary Hollywood narrative protocols, but to others it will come across as merely dilatory and even ostentatious in its very determination to be low-key, quirky and different. The present viewer falls into the latter category, but if the critical reaction to “George Washington” is any indication, that will put him into the minority.
The picture opens in medias res, introducing the major characters offhandedly and filling in some of the blanks nonchalantly as it goes along while ignoring others. Paul (Paul Schneider), a slightly scruffy but boyishly handsome fellow, is approached by the younger Noel (Zooey Deschanel), but he resists her advances because he doesn’t want to undermine his friendship with her brother Tip (Shea Wingham), who’s all too familiar with Paul’s reputation as a love-’em- and-leave-’em sort of guy. Nonetheless the two grow close despite the problems the relationship causes, and seem to be headed toward a permanent arrangement. A spur-of-the-moment act by Noel, however, derails things, and it’s doubtful that they can be satisfactorily mended.
That’s basically the entire plot of “All the Real Girls,” but it’s hardly laid out so matter-of-factly: the progress of Paul and Noel’s romance is shown our-of-sequence, in scenes that aim for an air of spontaneity even though they’re obviously very carefully designed and executed. Many of these moments the two share are quite engaging, helped by the chemistry between Schneider and Deschanel and the ease with which they play against one another; and when their relationship takes a rocky turn toward the close, the stars convey the rage and sadness they feel with conviction as well. (What really sets the film apart from the usual studio fare is that the bumps in the relationship aren’t depicted as cute or cuddly; the anger and confusion are portrayed in realistic terms.) But this central story is surrounded by constant digressions and interruptions: conversations between Paul and his mother Elvira (Patricia Clarkson); tirades by Kip, followed by a confessional monologue; “Marty”-style sessions in which Paul and Kip waste time with their buddies, including a shaggy clump of comic relief called Bust-Ass (Danny McBride); and moments with neighbors and townspeople whose very identities remain opaque. The result is a picture of fits and starts, sometimes touching and occasionally insightful, but overall quite artificial and affected.
Among the actors Deschanel stands out for her unforced, natural quality; it’s a very different performance from the archly funny, overstated turn she took in “The Good Girl,” but it’s equally eye-catching. Schneider doesn’t come off as well, not merely because his character is rather irritating–this is, after all, a story of childish young men stumbling toward maturity, and the males in it are notable mostly for their rather infantile behavior–but because his technical skill doesn’t seem quite up to the part’s demands. Clarkson, normally a fine actress, is stuck with some of the script’s more clumsy contrivances (her clown get-up one of the worst), and Wingham seems more a James Dean wannabe than a real person. Tim Orr’s widescreen cinematography is a distinct asset, giving a richness to the locations that adds to the semi-magical feel the picture’s aiming for. The languid, atmospheric quality of “All the Real Girls” may mesmerize viewers looking for films decidedly different from fast-paced, conventionally-constructed Hollywood product. Some, however, will find it as unformed and trying as its male protagonist, still an adolescent despite his advancing years.