No one can spin a muted, heartbreaking indie yarn quite like David Gordon Green. His 2008 masterpiece (too strong of an adjective?), Snow Angels, tackles death, alcoholism, and domestic abuse all in one neat, disturbing little 107 minute package. Going back, the second entry to his catalogue, 2003’s All the Real Girls, may not be so mentally gruelling, but this tale of small-town love certainly still packs an emotional punch.
Paul Schneider (who co-wrote the screenplay with Green) and Zooey Deschanel star as Paul and Noel, two people trapped by the limits of their small southern community. Noel is the younger sister of Paul’s best friend, Tip (Shea Wigham), and when she returns from boarding school and starts a tentative relationship with womanizing Paul, Tip is none too pleased. But it turns out that Tip is just the first of many roadblocks for Paul and Noel, and All the Real Girls follows the ups and downs of their relationship in a very realistic, understated way.
Part of what makes the film feel so realistic is the halting, stream-of-consciousness dialogue. And none of the actors seemed to embrace these unintentionally hilarious conversations as much as Danny McBride, who plays one of Paul’s friends, the wonderfully named Bust-Ass. McBride has recently risen to prominence thanks to his role in a Green’s 2008 stoner comedy, Pineapple Express, but his comedic chops even shine through the dreary setting and longing gazes here. Whether he’s asking his love interest if she just farted or dismissing restaurants that serve waffles as too “fancy”, everything about McBride’s performance is surprisingly affectionate and charming.
Schneider also stands out, giving a soulful take on a character that could easily have come across as slimy. He’s a small-town version of a playboy, but Schneider’s vulnerability and the sparkle in his eye makes Paul a character that the audience roots for.
Deschanel bats her big doe eyes and says psedo-intellectual things like, “Sometimes I like to pretend that I only have ten seconds to live”, and is all-around complicated. I probably would’ve been more taken with the character if I hadn’t already seen Deschanel play the exact same role in (500) Days of Summer, The Go-Getter, and The Good Life (all of which came out after All the Real Girls, to be fair), but Deschanel is at the best that I’ve seen her in the high-drama moments here.
All the Real Girls is a film that takes its time in developing characters and atmosphere, and doesn’t concern itself much with plot or the tying up loose ends. However, its slow pace begins to drag slightly in the second half, oddly, as the drama is cranked up to an all-time high. Green’s strength is in the bonds between his characters more than in the events that happen to them over the course of the film. We get a few too many scenes of characters wallowing in their own pity, and the film begins to meander slightly in its own messiness. And perhaps the biggest flaw of the second half of the film is that nearly all of the fascinating, diverse supporting characters get pushed to the background, used only as outlets for Paul’s emotions.
Despite the arguable shortcomings of the film’s second half, Green has crafted an effective take on the small joys and pitfalls of love. Only 27 years old when the film was made, Green tackles the quiet subject matter with considerable finesse. His filmmaking style is unobtrusive, but evokes a wonderful atmosphere. Paul and his friends live in a lonely, dank town, and the downbeat backdrop suits the rest of the film incredibly well.
The film that All the Real Girls is most often compared to is Zach Braff’s 2004 directorial debut, Garden State. Though Garden State may be the more wholly successful film, All the Real Girls feels less self-conscious and flaunts its average-dude roots, rather than amping up the drama with a hip soundtrack. It’s a must-see for fans of Green or Deschanel, and those who are willing to take a meandering journey through every aspect of love will likely enjoy this modest little film.