All the Real Girls (2003)

I started this blog as my cinema-going reviews, but I sometimes rewatch old films (or watch old films anew) at home, and I know it doesn’t quite fit into the ‘at the cinema’ theme, but I thought I’d try revisiting a film of the past. It’s now 10 years since All the Real Girls was released. I saw it in the cinema at the time, when I was roughly the same age as the film’s protagonists, and I accounted it my favourite film of the year when a few months later I made a list. I had very recently moved from New Zealand back to the city of my birth (Edinburgh). I was living in the basement under my aunt’s house, and feeling fairly disconnected: living on savings without a job, between relationships, feeling rather transient. I recount these autobiographical details, because more than most films, I really think such details are relevant to my response to this film. Somewhat like Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) — which I may have been too young to really appreciate at the time, though I adore the follow-up Before Sunset (2004) — it is one so wrapped up in itself, in the narcissism of its twentysomething protagonists, that I can quite believe it would entirely pass under the radar of anyone outside that peculiarly self-involved age. In this case, the two people at the centre of the film are Paul (Paul Schneider), a directionless small-town lothario, and Noel (Zooey Deschanel), the sister of his best friend who has just come back to town after many years away; their relationship with one another, in the context of their wider circle of friends, forms the narrative.

And love will protect you
To the edge of the wood
And a monster will get you
And love does no good

— Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, “Even If Love”

The film sets its tone from the very first moment with the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy song quoted above, all hushed, bleak mournfulness yet with a warmth to its softly-plucked acoustic guitar accompaniment. The film’s emotional terrain is well-matched to Will Oldham’s musical brand of americana, just as it’s matched to the radiant golden-hour cinematography of this autumnal small town (Marshall in North Carolina, though it seems more southern). There’s a gentleness even as lives are dramatically drifting apart. Watching this film, you know there won’t be a shocking twist or a melodramatic reveal, just two people grappling with their feelings and their youthful awkwardness, which makes it the perfect fit for David Gordon Green’s filmmaking style. Like in his first film George Washington (2000), he is strongly drawn towards wanting to mythologise or universalise the film’s events as a sort of poetic sacrament delivered to the viewer; here, more than in the earlier film, the characters seem themselves to be bound up in this. Paul, who has grown up with and is shown hanging out with a close-knit group of male friends, wants to idealise Noel, which makes her actions upsetting to him. His struggle is grappling with his wounded masculine pride, just as he is unsure of his direction in life. Noel, too, is young, younger than Paul, but she’s not willing to be the idealised empty vessel that Paul wants her to be; she too is confused, and figuring out her feelings.

If there’s a weakness to the film, it’s believing in Paul’s backstory. He is made out to have been a bit of a womaniser, having formed fleeting attachments with most of the women in town, and yet even in the flashbacks, he doesn’t convincingly pull this character off. It doesn’t ultimately have a huge bearing on the film, as it’s far more assured when grounded in the moment-to-moment present lives of the characters and the town. Of course there have been plenty of films dealing with emotionally immature men in relationships, but All the Real Girls is much more subtle about it, and it’s in the way the film progresses in its later stages that really mark it out. There are no easy resolutions, and it’s clear that though the two are right for each other, there are many other factors at work.

I’ve moved on in life, and perhaps these characters no longer speak to me in the same way, but the time has allowed me to feel if anything more warmly towards these people I knew 10 years ago, even if I am less wrapped-up in their self-involved drama. The bittersweet feeling at the close of the film seems just a little bit more hopeful, the sense that these two might be able to work things out somehow when they’ve gained a bit more life experience.

Director David Gordon Green; Writers Green and Paul Schneider; Cinematographer Tim Orr; Starring Zooey Deschanel, Paul Schneider; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Cameo, Edinburgh, Saturday 2 August 2003 (and on DVD, most recently at home, London, Saturday 30 March 2013).


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