The terrible title George Washington (2000) invites entirely the wrong audience. It's an independent film about kids & adults, but mostly kids, in a fading rather rural town of North Carolina.
It is built up from a great many stand-alone portraits of people, relatively few of which contribute to the slim story that only becomes evident halfway through the film. Some of these stand-alone vignettes are poetic & stunningly beautiful, but frequently framed by two other vignettes of no consequence or writerly show-off moments that don't sustain the characters as well as intended.
In general though it's an awfully good film, & anyone who likes Atom Egoyan or Michael Leigh will love this American equivalent, David Gordon Green. I could only wish he'd settled on a more poetic title or at least one that didn't induce potential viewers to assume it's a television mini-series about our first president.
One thing that delighted me was the affectation of a peacefully integrated South without divisions between white & black. If this is authentic it contradicts a great deal that is believed about the south, but if it's merely a wished-for condition that the filmmaker is fantasizing, then that's good too. It was a relief to see people being people without reference to their differing races.
The narrator is teenage Nasia (Candace Evanofski) who has thrown over her boyfriend Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) in favor of the film's titular character George (Donald Holden). George has a soft spot on the top of his head so always has to wear a helmet. From Buddy's point of view, he's just been displaced by a dork, & what does that make him? Less than a dork?
Other major characters include the big kid, sensitive Vernon (Damian Jewan Lee) who feels very deeply, & the very young white girl Sonya (Rachael Handy) who seemingly feels nothing. The worry slowly develops that they just might make a suicide pact together, driven by guilt & depression into a deepening friendship that could all too easily become tragic.
Sonya, Vernon, George & Buddy hang out a lot, & one day while rough-housing, Buddy is accidently killed, in a sequence that greatly harshens what has been up to then a pastoral tale.
The remarkable young cast were not professional actors. They're local kids from South Carolina, but by no means amateur in the work.
The cinema verite tone they lend to their ultra-real performances is reminiscent of Francois Truffaut or Jean Rouch. I doubt professional, excessively well groomed child actors, who never quite cease being vain brats, could've done this even half as well.
The three kids hide Buddy's corpse in a corner of an empty lot & then have to cope with their emotional responses to the tragedy they keep secret. George copes by vanishing into a personal fantasy of being a super hero capable of saving lives, even wearing a beach towel as a super hero cape. Vernon sinks into depression. Sonya regards herself as empty & worthless like all her family, with no future, & pretends not to have feelings.
We're also shown bits of the lives of adults in the children's lives, a touching scene for the mother of a child George the super hero actually did save from death; or George's strangely troubled uncle who always has an axe & is scared to death of the harmless stray dog George has adopted; & many exchanges between laborers in a junk yard or along the rail road tracks.
For much of the film it's not evident why it's titled after George, who is slow to surface as the main character among many. Buddy seems the central protagonist at first, then Nasia as the narrator seems most consequential.
We follow so many characters in so many directions it's not instantly clear that George is any more consequential than the other kids in the tale.
But little scenes, like when George congratulates the old guy who was Uncle Sam in the Independence Day parade, or visits his father in prison to express the depth of his love & forgiveness, it does finally become evident that George is closest thing to a central protagonist, becoming the best of many great characters.
This is not a tale of action & it isn't even driven by event. It's driven by feelings. It effectively captures a sense of a rural summer full of life & beauty for kids whose youthful naivete & hope comes full-face with life's parallel dangers both physical & emotional.
Anyone who remembers at least one childhood summer of their own -- which was likewise full of terror, joy, & revelation such as only the young can experience in this manner -- will certainly love this film.
It may seem less astonishling to the newest generations who will remember their summers as just additional months of texting, web surfing, & electronic gaming, rather than running through meadows, foraging in empty lots or junk yards, & dreaming in the sweat & brightness of July. If you never experienced a summer like this one, it might be harder to connect with this film.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl