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[whitespace] 'George Washington'
By George: Donald Holden portrays the kind-hearted George in 'George Washington.'

Southern Slice

CinemaScope adds epic weight to understated 'George Washington'

By Jim Aquino

WHEN 25-YEAR-OLD DIRECTOR David Gordon Green's mostly improvised, almost plotless George Washington premiered on the East Coast last fall, New York Press film critic Armond White called it the year's best film because "it goes against almost every trend that is popular in contemporary film culture ... it bridges the secret gulfs in American racial and economic experience." Meanwhile, a fellow movie-talk radio host detested this story of a group of mostly black preteen dreamers in a poor North Carolina town--among them, contemplative 12-year-old narrator Nasia (Candace Evanofski) and her introverted boyfriend, George (Donald Holden), who always wears a football helmet to protect his congenitally soft skull. My friend told me that George Washington was amateurish and sloppy and one of the worst movies he had ever seen.

I don't think the Texas-based Green's feature debut--another love-it-or-hate-it film from a year that was full of them--is either 2000's finest picture or the nadir of art-house filmmaking. But except for some flat acting, George Washington is hardly amateurish; for one thing it's the year's best-photographed movie, with radiant summertime cinematography by first-timer Tim Orr, who makes great use of the widescreen and captures the simultaneous bleakness and beauty of the underclass settings. Green's decision to shoot in color and CinemaScope is a welcome departure from the anemic aesthetic approaches of most indie directors: too many of them come from the tiresome "my technique is to have no technique" school of filmmaking. (And don't get me started on all those directors who tout the pleasures of digital video, which, though economical and easy to work with, just looks ugly on the big screen.)

The CinemaScope cinematography lends an epic weight to this understated slice of Southern life, which revolves around a neighborhood tragedy that the kid protagonists inadvertently cause and try to conceal while overcome with guilt. But the imagery isn't the only splendid element. Green assembled a cast of nonprofessional actors, some wooden, others remarkable and affecting, particularly Evanofski and Holden. His laconic, somber and kindhearted would-be superhero George isn't the same old grotesque, cloying characterization of a mentally or physically challenged person (such roles often end up as an excuse for lazy, hammy acting from performers like Jesper Asholt in Mifune, Giovanni Ribisi in The Gift and, well, most of the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominees in the last decade).

The movie's detractors find fault with its aimless, meandering feel, particularly in the kid actors' improvised conversations, but for me, it's one of the film's charms. It's as integral to George Washington as it was to Ray Ashley and Morris Engel's 1953 neo-realist classic, Little Fugitive, which Green's movie recalls in its wistful yet unsentimental verité vision of the aimlessness and longing of a lower-class childhood. Whether you love George Washington or hate it, you can't overlook its lack of sentimentality or its lyrical, understated depiction of the rural South, free from the Hollywoodized touches and cartoonish, stereotypical characterizations that mar Southern-set movies like The Gift. Nor can you deny Green is a newcomer to watch.

George Washington (Unrated; 89 min.), directed and written by David Gordon Green, photographed by Tim Orr and starring Candace Evanofski and Donald Holden, opens Friday at the Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the January 25-31, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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