A funny thing happens when you Google David Gordon Green. Buried down under the first page of hits for “David Gordon Green director” is a related search for “what happened to David Gordon Green” which, once clicked, spits out a litany of links to articles with titles like “Whatever Happened To David Gordon Green?” and “What the Fuck Happened to David Gordon Green?” As a fan of Green’s earlier works, I understand the sentiment – it’s hard to conceive that the filmmaker who made dramatic, nuanced works like George Washington and Undertow also made The Sitter and Your Highness. What the fuck indeed.
But even the existence of something like Your Highness (a film I keep hoping to like, or at least to forgive) and The Sitter (a misfire in every way) shouldn’t stop a cinephile’s admiration and appreciation of David Gordon Green, because you can still always watch his hands-down, no-contest, modern classic gem of a movie, All the Real Girls.
The truth of “what happened” to Green isn’t something that can be casually tossed off as “he’s a sellout” or “he never got over losing A Confederacy of Dunces” (a true tragedy that any fan of Green and John Kennedy Toole’s book should truly mourn, even today), because nothing happened to Green – he was already like this. During his years at the North Carolina School of the Arts, Green made films closer in tone and genre to Your Highness than to George Washington (this is an artist, after all, whose first film was about a guy who invents soap in the modern day). If we should wonder about the genesis of any of his films, it should be the earlier, more dramatic fare. How did a guy who made a film about the invention of soap make George Washington? It’s when you consider the reverse that the “what the fuck happened to David Gordon Green?” question actually becomes a positive one that shows talent and range on his part, not regression.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter and perhaps this question will soon be a forgotten one, because Green is now moving back into the sort of territory that at least feels slightly more in line with his earlier, dramatic, feature-length sensibilities, thanks to the shaggy charms of this week’s release, Prince Avalanche, and an upcoming slate of films that include a coming-of-age tale starring Nicolas Cage (Joe) and an Al Pacino-starring story about a former criminal trying to live a normal life (Manglehorn). Until then, there’s always All the Real Girls.
Ten years old this year, Green’s second feature outing still feels like the definitive “David Gordon Green movie,” even more so than his wonderful debut George Washington or the tightly wound Undertow or even the one comedic outing of his that I unabashedly adore (that would be Pineapple Express). It’s funny and strange and lovely and sad and the sort of film that lends itself to rewatching, because it reveals something new with every single observance. Even its conclusion remains open for interpretation and exploration (admittedly, my take on it changes from day to day, even now).
All the Real Girls works for the exact reason it shouldn’t – because it stings and hurts and aches in an honest way, simply because it’s layered with enough realism that anyone should be able to find something within it that reminds them of their own lives, and often in a sad (or at least wistful) way. Most of the time, people go to the movies to forget about real life, or at least to take a break from it, and it’s the rare film that can function both as a true slice of life and an entertaining piece of art.
The story of All the Real Girls is both specific and unique, while also being highly relatable and easily explained. Paul (Paul Schneider, who conceived of the story with Green and has never been better than in this role) is a small town womanizer with a big, bad reputation for loving and leaving the local ladies, Noel (Zooey Deschanel, tossing the idea of “manic pixie dream girl” out the metaphorical window, even after she gets a pixie cut in the film) is his best friend’s baby sister, suddenly back in town after being away at school, and more lovely than ever. Of course they are going to fall in love (hello, this is the movies) – but the trick of it is, neither of them has ever really been in love, and they have to spend the entire film convincing themselves, each other, and the outside world that their emotions and intentions are pure. Being in love is hard enough, but the pressure and the judgment make Paul and Noel’s relationship feel nothing but doomed from the very start. (Or is it?)
(Side note: just how bad is Paul’s rep? So bad that, at one point, he needs to explain to Noel, “when people from before come up, I want you to understand what they hate when they see me.” He’s the town dick in more ways than one.)
The film feels real and lived in and exceedingly intimate – Paul and Noel’s romance is punctuated by lovely and stilted conversations (they are people who sound like actual people), equally important professions of affection and secrets, and everyday interactions that somehow still feel epic (you can already sense both Paul and Noel mythologizing their own story as it’s playing out). Their love story very much belongs to them, but it’s also crafted in such a way that it guarantees viewers will instantly relate to it through the memories of their own great first love (or their current love, or the one that got away, and so on). Put simply – this movie hurts. It’s probably best to watch it alone (or at least with someone you love a lot who won’t feel weird if either of you have physical reactions to the screen).
And for those still convinced that Green’s recent comedic features are some anomaly, even All the Real Girls is run through with weird, funny, potentially offensive stuff. Patricia Clarkson plays Paul’s mom, who is literally a sad clown. His adopted cousin is a charming Asian girl who has been named “Feng-Shui” by her father. Hell, even Danny McBride makes an indelible mark in his debut performance as bang-around guy Bust-Ass. Green has always been a bit off-kilter with his sense of humor, it simply (and wisely) takes a backseat in All the Real Girls.
Yes, it’s strange that the same guy who made one of modern cinema’s most weirdly wrenching love stories also made a film about big-schlonged medieval beasts and a potentially bad-touched James Franco (and weed, just lots and lots of weed), but Green’s comedic career choices don’t negate or erase the nuanced, emotional, and dramatic work that came before. All the Real Girls still exists, Green still made it, and it still stings.