For a change, Asheville is one up on New York and Los Angeles, since we get the world premiere of David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls a day before it opens in those meccas of cinema. But don’t let the fact that Girls was shot locally be the only reason you go to see it — though that’s probably reason enough: This is the first film I can recall that really captures the area as we know it (in other words, it’s not a period piece, and it doesn’t focus on the Biltmore Estate). It makes great use of Marshall and parts of Asheville — and there’s even one stunning image of the old Sayles Bleacheries.
However, All the Real Girls would be worth your attention regardless of where it was shot. Yes, it’s a low-budget independent film, but it’s worlds away from the flood of willfully ugly, pointlessly pretentious, shaky-cam rubbish that has come to signify indie films of late (Personal Velocity, Roger Dodger). In fact, the first thing you notice about Girls is that it was shot in true wide-screen format (2.35:1) — rare in any low-budget production, and almost unheard of with indies. The next thing you notice is how beautifully it’s lit, how thoughtfully it’s composed and how it inhabits the world in which it takes place. The real marvel, though, comes when all this falls to one side and you become engaged with the characters and the story the film sets out to tell.
From a Southern perspective, the movie’s a true breath of fresh air. For once, we’re treated to Southern characters who aren’t gun-totin’ rednecks with exaggerated accents. These are real people with real emotions — the film gives us a pretty accurate depiction of things as they are and not as Hollywood likes to think that they are. (I want to see a Hollywood product that allows one male character to chastely kiss another male character in a moment of high emotion!)
The story itself is simple, but far from straightforward: Paul Schneider (who was also in Green’s George Washington, and who co-authored the story here) plays Paul, a local lothario who finds himself in the unenviable position of being attracted to Noel (the wonderful Zooey Deschanel in her first leading role), who just happens to be the sister of one of his best friends, Tip (Shea Whigham, Tigerland). By all rights this should put Noel off-limits, but the attraction proves too strong. More surprising still, the attraction proves to be something more than Paul might have reasonably expected: Noel isn’t just another notch on the bedpost to him; he genuinely falls in love with her and doesn’t even attempt to sleep with her, respecting her virginity.
The scenes of their courtship are wonderfully sketched in. Particularly good is a sequence in a bowling alley where the pair engage in an unusual hug on one of the lanes, and Paul is so overcome with happiness that he has to express himself in dance … but only after Noel turns her back so she can’t witness him making a “fool” of himself. Like other such sequences, this is personal and a bit quirky, but believable and not forced.
Since the film is essentially a romantic comedy, it is, of course, necessary that something will crop up to drive the pair apart. While I won’t reveal what that is, I will say that both the problem and the subsequent events have very little in common with the usual dictates of the genre. The scenario is fresh and, more importantly, realistic. Even the obligatory post-break-up scenes aren’t anything like the parallel ones you find in movies like Maid in Manhattan and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Consider: When Matthew McConaughey’s character loses the girl in How to Lose a Guy, he pours out his woes in traditional “cute” manner — by talking to the upholstered mouse of a dog that Kate Hudson’s character gave him earlier in the film.
In All the Real Girls, Paul talks things over with his friends and family in very believable terms; it’s not at all cute. Instead, it’s real and moving, and something anyone can identify with. And while the dialogue is good, it’s not all about being clever. Indeed, Paul is often hampered by the inadequacy of words to explain his feelings or to help him understand himself. Late in the film, he even smashes his hand through a car window as an expression of the pain he can’t verbalize (and, thankfully, he doesn’t emerge unharmed from this bout of inarticulate macho-ness). It’s a splendidly real moment in a movie brimming with them.
All the performances in the film are first-rate. Schneider is excellent in the lead, and he’s matched every step of the way by Deschanel and supporting players like Patricia Clarkson and Benjamin Mouton. Like the film itself, they seem to truly inhabit the world in which the action takes place.
The movie isn’t perfect; a few ideas fall short. Some probably looked better on paper than they play, but the film works far more than it doesn’t. And by Girls’ end, you’re apt to have forgotten its small budget and even, to some degree, its local connection, realizing that it’s simply a good little movie in its own right.