Tuesday, August 20, 2013

FI: George Washington (2000)

George Washington
US, 2000
Written and Directed by David Gordon Green

Given that writer/director David Gordon Green is back in cinemas with Prince Avalanche, which some critics are calling a return to form following Green's work on stoner fare like Pineapple Express and Your Highness, I thought it was about time for me to see what sort of form Green is meant to be returning to. To that end, George Washington, Green's debut feature, is a quiet, occasionally-Malickian slice-of-life story set among a group of friends in an impoverished Southern town. The most notable thing, perhaps, is how George Washington uses real settings and non-professional actors to give a voice to people often erased from mainstream media. The narrator, Nasia (Candace Evanofski), is a teenage, lower-class, rural black woman, and most of her friends are from the same background. Simply put, they don't make very many movies about people like Nasia, and Green manages it with sensitivity—and without "worthiness," condescension, or self-importance.

The story takes place over the course of a single summer, during which Nasia breaks up with her boyfriend Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) and starts hanging out with George (Donald Holden), a quiet boy with an unfused fontanelle that renders him unable to go underwater or withstand blows to the head. The group, which also includes tough, loyal Vernon (Damian Jewan Lee) and little thief Sonya (Rachael Handy), spend time together making their own fun in the way that kids without possessions or supervision tend to do. There are moments of tragedy and moments of triumph, and Green and cinematographer Tim Orr capture it all in beautiful, often slow-motion images that help elucidate the children's dreams and inner lives. Nasia dreams of growing up, George dreams of making a difference, and Vernon and Sonya just want to get out. The children's story is intercut with scenes involving adults like George's irascible uncle Damascus (Eddie Rouse) and his fellow railroad employee Rico (Paul Schneider), always serving to show how the entrapping nature of life in these poor, out-of-the-way places can crush those dreams and that idealism.

George Washington is somehow both elliptical and frank, both poetic and realistic, but never feels anything less than genuine. Tone, not story, is its primary concern. It is leisurely paced, even given its ~90 minute running time, and yet makes time to depart from the main story for sequences or montages that color the whole without diluting the film's emotional impact. It is a film that makes no overt political argument, yet still somehow challenges orthodox views about American prosperity. It may frustrate some with its lyrical camera and loose plotting, but it is worth the effort. If you'd like to see for yourself, George Washington is streaming via HuluPlus's Criterion Collection channel.

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