Much of the critical reaction to David Gordon Green’s slow, soft-focus, strenuously poetic and almost wantonly non-linear debut feature, a reverie-like film centered on George (Donald Holden), an African-American youth in a decaying Southern town, has been almost adulatory; comparisons to pictures that have long been critics’ darlings (such as Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven”) have been rife. To the present viewer, all the praise is not only unwarranted but inexplicable. “George Washington” is both pretentious and shallow, the sort of picture that murkily suggests all sorts of deep meanings because it’s fundamentally incoherent.
It’s almost impossible to discern what the picture is about, because it’s determinedly oblique and fragmentary, more interested in drawing an impressionistic portrait of a world and creating a gauzy, dreamlike atmosphere than in narrating a story. At its center is a more benign version of the dramatic crux of Tim Hunter’s “River’s Edge” (1989) or Larry Clark’s current “Bully,” in which a group of youngsters have to deal with the death (or murder) of one of their own: in this case, George accidentally causes the demise of his chum, Buddy (Curtis Cotton, III), and their friends conceal the body. But the fragmentary scenario also deals with an adolescent “romantic” triangle involving George, Buddy and Nasia (Candace Evanofski), a super-articulate girl who also narrates the piece in tones meant to recall both “Days of Heaven” and “To Kill a Mockingbird;” the curious friendship between two other members of the group, hulking Vernon (Damien Jewan Lee) and tiny, blond Sonya (Rachael Handy), who vaguely plan to escape their hopeless lives by stealing a car and running away; and a group of oddball, loquacious construction workers led by motor-mouthed Rico (Paul Schneider), and briefly including George’s surly uncle Damascus (Eddie Rouse), who’s unable to articulate his fear of animals. There’s also a prolonged climax having to do with George’s saving a boy injured at a swimming pool at the danger of harming himself (we’re told he has a “soft” skull that can’t endure immersion in water) and then transforming himself into a would-be superhero; for the role he dons wrestling tights, a white cape, and a football helmet. This conclusion is presented by Green and his cinematographer Tim Orr, who works overtime to give the proceedings a hushed, languid glow, as though it were some sort of apotheosis; but what it’s supposed to reveal remains opaque at best.
It’s certainly true that “George Washington” succeeds in creating an autumnal mood and an atmosphere of vague desperation and hopelessness, punctuated by occasional moments of calculated uplift. But as impressive as some of the individual scenes are (the sequence of Buddy’s death has a chillingly detached quality about it, for instance), the various elements never jell into a satisfying whole. One feels that Green is straining for effects he never succeeds in reaching, and his young cast, while personable, prove more capable of depicting their characters’ customary casual indolence than in revealing much about their inner lives. Instead of mirroring the profundity encased in rustic simplicity that the great Southern artists achieved, his picture suggests that he’s a talented but still unformed writer-director who needs to impose some discipline on his flights of imagination. Obviously “George Washington” affects some viewers deeply, and you may be one of them. But most people who see it, I think, will be bewildered by the exorbitant praise heaped upon a little film that shows promise and will certainly stick in the memory, but is far too self-conscious and deliberately obscure for its own good.