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Buy the Criterion Collection DVD of director David Gordon Green's feature debut, 'George Washington.'


Photograph by Karey Williams

Bowled Over: Noel (Zooey Deschanel) falls for Paul (Paul Schneider) even though she figures he'll amount to nothing.

All the Right Moves

'All the Real Girls' is a lingering small-town romance in widescreen

By Richard von Busack

THE LOVELY and strange All the Real Girls is a lingering small-town romance that seems to be leading up to an act of violence. It's set in a leafy West Virginia mill town, where the only serious jobs are at the blanket factory. Business is good, and at night you can hear the factory humming. Director David Gordon Green takes in the plant's pale greenish lights in widescreen as if it were the full moon.

A lot of the slow days pass by while the good-natured but quick-tempered characters fix up old cars and trucks. Paul (Paul Schneider) is a handsome, dumb young rooster. Stock-car driving is as close to serious effort as he gets. He drives his mom's frowsy subcompact. In a dumb gesture of souping it up, he drops mothballs in the gas tank. These mechanical experiments don't help mend the fraying love between him and his mother. She's played by Patricia Clarkson, the fair-weather best friend in Far From Heaven). She has that saddest of jobs; she's a children's hospital clown.

Paul has an easy way with women; he's been with 26 girls, though he's not 26 years of age yet. The 27th is Noel (Zooey Deschanel). She's the sister of Paul's best friend, who is worried about his sister's reputation. Noel, newly arrived from boarding school, takes to Paul, even though she seriously outclasses him.

A movie like this is so vague, you'd expect that there'd be a murder brought in to nail it down. Even without violence, All the Real Girls has a point, and you're suspended over that point so long it hurts. It's a simple "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy realizes what an absolute idiot he's been, girl stays lost" story. Noel feels that she's spent too much time in school and wants to hang around and maybe work at the factory ("At least you've had that experience," she tells Paul). In the early scenes--a stolen night at a motel, where Noel reveals she's a virgin--there's still hope the two can connect, despite Paul's almost total lack of intellectual curiosity.

This delicate romance gets you yearning. It's not precious. If there's poetry in the dialogue, it's like the poetry on a Captain Beefheart record--likably surreal, sometimes nonsensical, but definitely blue-collar and earthy. Using the same, slow buildup of character, mood and place you'd see in a Mike Leigh film, Green rewards your patience in a scene staged in a small-town park next to a swing set. This scene is as painful as anything seen onscreen in years. There in the park, Paul hears a confession by Noel. So much depends on him saying and doing the right thing. So much depends on Paul proving to Noel that he is more than just a hick who'll never learn anything. Green prolongs this key moment, and the memory of every bungled moment, every badly healed heartbreak, flares up inside you.

All the Real Girls (R; 90 min.), directed David Gordon Green, written by Green and Paul Schneider, photographed by Tim Orr and starring Schneider, Zooey Deschanel and Patricia Clarkson, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the February 27-March 5, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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