Filmmaker David Gordon Green, director of 2000's quiet but surprisingly moving George Washington, wants to create a real and natural universe on-screen -- a place settled in its entirety where his characters can wander along train tracks overgrown with weeds, work in a sweaty textile mill, and sleep and make love on creaky mattresses in leaning frame houses.
That universe is Somewhere, North Carolina -- a mythical, crumbling mill town inhabited by bored, earthy young people who are settled so ankle-deep in the soil of their hometown that they don't even dream of escaping.
All the Real Girls is the sad love story of two such youngsters -- Noel, played by the scratchy-voiced, alluring actress Zooey Deschanel, and Paul, played by Green perennial and collaborator Paul Schneider. Noel has just returned home at age 18 after six years away at boarding school -- a journey that has spared her the tedium of small-town gossip and incestuous relationships, and has opened her eyes to possibilities unseen by her contemporaries back home.
Paul is her brother Tip's best friend and the town's Casanova. Lethargic and cute, he wanders through his days providing moral support for his depressed mother (Patricia Clarkson) and looking for love. After reuniting and almost instantaneously falling in love with Noel, Paul feels guilty about the girls he's bedded and jilted along the way. His soul searching overlaps with Tip's general mistrust of his best friend who now might bed his protected little sister.
The best that can be said for All the Real Girls is that Green succeeds beautifully at creating his chosen universe. Camera angles, lighting, set decoration, wardrobe, dialogue and on-location shooting all combine seamlessly to transport the viewer to a starkly real, naturalistic place. And his characters feel as if they were really born and bred there.
But the romance at the center of the film, sweet as it is, never really soars. Its depiction is packed with affectionate glances, private conversations, long walks and weird gestures. It feels simultaneoulsy hopeful and doomed, but it is simply not compelling enough to demand much compassion from the viewer. It has a familiar been-there feeling to it that leads to so-what? Young love hurts. Growing up sucks. Girls and guys come and go and some of them are the real thing while some are not. That's what All the Real Girls seems to be about, and that, in the end, is not quite enough.
-- Kathryn Eastburn