Directed by David Gordon Green
In George Washington, a girl speaks somewhat somberly about a boy she likes, George, but she does so in a way that resembles a eulogy. We find out early on that George (Donald Holden) has a condition that leaves him with a weaker skull, meaning he can’t get his head wet and must wear a helmet at all times or risk even the slightest contact with his head causing irreparable damage. So right from the beginning, you know something will likely go wrong.
From these beginnings, it’s not hard to imagine that George has, in fact, died, and that Nasia’s (Candace Evanofski) narration occurs as she thinks back on George’s life. When speaking to her friends, she refers to George as just a boy she likes, and when she and her friends talk about boys, they do with a teenaged innocence, focusing on first kisses and failed relationships. But when Nasia talks about George to the audience, she does as as one might describe their encounter with Jesus Christ, or Superman or another larger than life figure. In her voiceover, which bookends the film and pops in here and there in the middle, George is more than a human. He’s a hero, as he himself later imagines, but as a ‘hero,’ he is hardly George. There is no overlap, in other words, between George Richardson, the boy with the head condition, and George the caped superhero who directs traffic and saved a kid from drowning.
Though this latter George is very much a real person, still George himself, he imagines himself to be a superhero. It’s past the midpoint of the film that George distances himself from… well, himself. Due to a tragic mistake in act 1 that leaves his friend Buddy dead, George goes to great lengths to identify purposefully as a hero, one who saves and not one who kills. This occurs after he does save a boy from drowning and is labelled a hero in the local paper.
Between George’s conscious effort to become a superhero (he wears a cape and a red, white and blue uniform), and Nasia’s romantic narration, we stop seeing the world through George’s eyes and instead through hers. Though Nasia’s words start the film, almost all of act 1 is a personal drama seen through George’s eyes. As the story goes on we receive more moments which suggest that this is George’s story. But in the second half of the film, George becomes less of the protagonist and more of the object of Nasia’s desire and admiration, even if it is a little foolish.
Like The Virgin Suicides, the focus of the story is someone who’s perspective does not dominate the narrative, as it typically does in most movies. If John is your movie’s hero, then he’s likely the person through whose eyes we see the events of the movie. That is so that we can, on some level, identify with him. We understand the way John sees the world, his pain, his desires, and ultimately we should share in his triumph.
But in George Washington, we are pulled further and further apart from George. We’re told from the start that this is a movie about George but not necessarily from George. However, we’re given enough of his perspective in act 1 to identify with him, and it’s not hard to feel for a silent kid with a physical condition that prevents him from being a kid like everyone else. So we’re right there with George, feeling what he feels.
But after George, in a playful scuffle with a couple kids, accidentally pushes and kills his friend, Buddy, we grow further away from our main character. This shift in perspective occurs as George himself tries to distance himself from George. In some ways it’s like a dissociative identity disorder. George can’t bear to accept that he killed his friend, and while he never denies what he did, he turns all of his attention towards becoming a superhero, someone outside of himself. And because this new character he has created probably doesn’t have the same insight to comment on his decision-making and mindset, due to his own likely denial, we shift to the perspective of Nasia, the character who most closely watches him.
So this progression still reflects what’s going on inside George’s head. As the story goes on, we see what’s going on with the other two kids who were present during Buddy’s death. Vernon (Damian Jewan Lee), a mentor of sorts to young Buddy, struggles constantly with what happened, and his internal suffering manifests itself physically when he crashes a car, finally stolen after multiple attempts to hot wire a vehicle. The other, Sonya (Rachael Handy), stays mostly quiet until a conversation, a kind of breakthrough, convinces her to finally go to the police.
As this is going on, we witness George’s growth. He becomes more concerned with the future, wanting to be like our culture’s heroes, including George Washington. He attends a fourth of July parade after which he meets the man who ‘played’ George Washington and tells him he was the best part of the performance.
Again, everything is told to us through Nasia’s words, and we receive corresponding, slow motion images of George in action. Every shot of him feels poetic and perhaps a little too good to be true. There is a dichotomy in terms of the George we see in these moments, told to us in voiceover, and the real world George we see interacting with Nasia.
It seems that she could talk about him forever, but in one of their final conversations, she calls and asks him to come over, but he says they probably shouldn’t see each other anymore because, “I have nothing to say.” In each of their interactions, George is strikingly quiet, offering nothing for Nasia to run with, and yet she nonetheless finds something about him she likes. Because Nasia is just a kid, as Vernon points out, and because she has disillusions about Buddy, her last boyfriend, it’s easy to imagine that Nasia’s idea of George is incredibly romantic and flawed. There is no reason for her to believe the things she believes about him. Instead, the character she imagines in her head is likely hardly the person he really is.
So at the end of the film, when we see Sonya go to the police and begin her story about what really happened to Buddy, it follows that George’s rule in the boy’s death, whether deemed accidental or otherwise, will be found out. The film ends with George, his head no longer covered by a helmet or a hat, posing for a presidential portrait, as told to us by Nasia. It’s a heartwarming ending, letting us in on this lower-class kid’s dream to be anything and everything, in spite of his circumstances, but it’s also just that, a dream.
In reality, George is probably brought in for questioning in his role in Buddy’s death, and though he’s just a kid and the death was accidental, maybe he receives a harsh punishment.
George Washington sets up the two worlds as one in which nothing good happens for our heroes and one in which anything good can and will happen. The former is where we spend most of our time. It’s a small town likely in the south. Everything seems abandoned, and because of that, it’s all a playground for George, Nasia, Buddy, Vernon and Sonya to play in. It’s a rundown environment, but these kids have enough of an imagination to make it their own.
They are young enough to overlook or simply not understand the hardships that lie ahead of them, whether because of their social class, race, or, in George’s case, his lifelong disability. What little we are told about these kids’ home lives is enough to let us know that things aren’t looking up. George’s father is incarcerated, and at home he is under the rule of a vindictive uncle who he worries might kill his dog. Vernon tells a story about growing up poor and not being able to eat some nights, and Sonya tells a story about believing herself to be a bad person, and, considering her young age, it’s easy to see this as a manifestation for however she might have been raised.
In one scene, a good illustration of the movie’s theme, Vernon worries that he will not hold up in prison, where he imagines he’ll go if found out for his role in Buddy’s death. Vernon has heard the stories, he knows his lot in life, and he knows there might not be a whole lot of sympathy thrown his away, likely because of his race. He is also the oldest of the kids involved and therefore possibly going to be held the most responsible. In this moment, a gut-wrenching moment, Vernon illustrates that people like him don’t win.
So the second world is one where people like him, or Buddy or George, can win. George dresses up in a cape, an old football helmet and in Buddy’s old wrestling leotard, and he fashions himself a hero. This comes, again, after he saves a boy from drowning, risking his own life in the process. When he saved the boy, George dove into the water in nothing but his underwear, and later, while reading the story about him in the paper, George laments that the photo of him in the paper is the one in which he’s wearing nothing but underwear and not a nicer photo of himself. He spends the rest of the film trying to create the image of himself he would want in the newspaper, only he can’t realize how it looks to the outside world.
George directs traffic, looking silly in the process, and because he’s not such a young kid, his outfit looks foolish as you might expect him to have good enough sense to not dress like that. He directs traffic in glorious slow motion, with the sun often lighting him to look heroic, but we hear the muted sounds of cars honking in the background, which he probably doesn’t here. A worker named Rico, played by Paul Schneider, who pops up here and there throughout the film, asks if he can help George out, if he’ll let him. This is a moment where the audience can see that Rico feels for the boy, and wants to help him out so that he’s less likely to be humiliated doing what he’s doing, but George still doesn’t recognize how he comes off to the world. He is fully in his own world now.
Both of these scenes, the newspaper photo and George directing traffic, illustrate the separation between the way he sees himself and the way he sees the world, and this illustrates the greater theme and idea of a group of people being put in a corner based on things out of their control, like race and social class. Someone like George isn’t supposed to succeed, and the film uses Buddy’s death as a symbol of why he can’t succeed.
The reason George likely won’t succeed in this film is because he killed Buddy, and based on Sonya beginning to speak to the police, this will be found out. It’s an illustration of why someone like George likely won’t become all the things he fantasizes about becoming in real life, because of his background and elements outside of his control.
But the film tells us to keep dreaming, not in a naive way, but in a manner that suggests that there is always hope. Still, though, Nasia’s narration feels like a eulogy, suggesting that, even as she says she hopes George will never die, he already has. The hope, it seems, is to inspire others, whether people who come after George or the audience or both. Some things conspire to keep people down, economically or financially or politically, but there’s a reason to hope.
Stylistically, this whole film is graded to look like old film, stepped in sepia tones. This makes it feel nostalgic already, like what we’re seeing has happened long ago, and now, because this is 17 years later, it has.
The film is also made up of mostly non-actor actors, and at times their struggles through the dialogue makes the film even more tender and beautiful. These are kids who are unprepared for what they’re dealing with, and watching them stumble through some of the script feels right. They often feel like they are learning to communicate as they speak because this, like most films about growing up, is a coming of age story in some regard. These are kids learning about how the world works and having certain misconceptions broke down, or in George’s case, reinforced.
In most ‘coming of age’ stories, now that I think about it, a kid believes something at the beginning and then that belief is crushed by the time the film ends. So the kid sees the world for what it really is, but they find strength in finally seeing the world clearly, so we are left with the impression that the kid has grown up a little and is better prepared for the world. Of course in this film, George becomes arguably more distant from the real world and more in his own head. Or this, again, could simply be how Nasia sees him. She is a character who thinks she’s more grown up than she is.
At the beginning of the story she dumps Buddy because she thinks he’s too immature, even if he is older than her. She wants an older ‘man,’ and she sets her sights on George and doesn’t see him for who he truly is. Thus, she remains stuck in a more innocent, naive view of the world while the other characters, namely Vernon and Sonya, grapple with real, unfortunate realities.
George Washington also feels like a much older film, like something out of the French New Wave or from the director revolution of the 1970s. Part of that is because of the non professional acting (like old French films), and part of that is because of the rough around the edges (but nonetheless beautiful) cinematography (old 70s cinema).