All the Real Girls (2003)

Directed by David Gordon Green

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All the Real Girls is a love story between a womanizer and the 18 year-old sister of his best friend.  When the story opens they are standing across from each other, and she’s asking him why he’s never kissed her.

We’re only just now meeting these characters, but they know each other already, and these occasional time jumps introduce us to where they’re headed before they get there.  The point is that Paul (Paul Schneider) and Noel (Zooey Deschanel) are falling in love, the type of sincere, perhaps a bit misguided kind of romance that only happens at a certain age.

Maybe misguided is the wrong word.  Though their shared affection is genuine, it’s eventually challenged by respective insecurities and youthful aggression, a type of anger that always feels misdirected because the person possessing it can’t tell where it really comes from.

The characters of All the Real Girls, not just Paul and Noel, leave the story having learned a little bit more about themselves.  They break through self-afflicted barriers that may have prevented a chance at happiness, and by the end they appear more open to the whims of the world.

It’s a beautiful story, devastatingly earnest.  Maybe you won’t fall for Paul’s and Noel’s charms, but the absolute sincerity of Green’s direction is hard not to appreciate.  Maybe it’s the type of story that these characters would mock at the start of the film, but the people they are at the end would certainly admire the effort to capture something honest.

Paul’s and Noel’s relationship is a lot like that of Romeo & Juliet.  They fall into that kind of fated love that is threatened only by external forces.  In this case it’s Noel’s brother, Tip (Shea Whigham), himself a womanizer, Paul’s best friend and painfully aware of Paul’s habit of using and discarding the women he sleeps with.

That’s the set up, but the film is about much more than that.  Maybe halfway into the film Paul and Tip share a tender moment of their own in which they acknowledge their own self-doubts and desires to change for the better.  Tip isn’t just there as a sounding board for Paul’s relationship.  He’s involved with someone and recently learned he could be a father.

All the Real Girls gives its side characters weight.  In other romantic movies the side characters are only there to comment on our lovebird protagonists.  Everything revolves around them, and this normalizes a certain kind of selfishness that tends to follow a head over heels type of infatuation.

We see that selfishness in Paul, certainly.  As events transpire and things don’t always go his way he reacts with a violent kind of petulance, an extremely unattractive look that still never detracts from his more charming qualities.  The film shows him, and Noel, as real people, admirable and frustrating.  We see them through each other’s eyes, where it seems they can do no wrong.  We see them in the eyes of others, made less spectacular because like others they are just regular people, and then we see them again through the eyes of each other, this time seemingly able to do no right.

It’s kind of amazing and true to life, at least from my limited experience.  In one instance we watch Paul and Noel in a particularly sweet, innocent moment.  They’re lost in each other’s eyes and blah, blah, blah, other gross, sweet nothings, but then because of that moment he arrives home four hours late.  Paul’s mother, Elvira (Patricia Clarkson), rips into him because his tardiness prevented her from making it to the birthday party of a handicapped child at which she was to perform as a clown.

We see a moment we want to live in and another that is frustrating for several reasons, not just because it’s relatable but because it paints Paul in a negative light, albeit an honest one.

I don’t know how David Gordon Green does this.  I appreciate the film’s sincerity, but you know what else is often sincere?  Student films.  And I’ve both watched and made a number of sincere, self-indulgent student films.  There’s nothing wrong with them because they often reflect a desire to express oneself and to do that with a certain purity that young adulthood replaces with a proud jadedness.  Still, trying to translate your direct experience as literally as it happened is often a recipe for disaster.  Movies are there to exaggerate, emphasize, mold and distort the reality as a way to better preserve the heart of the story.  That’s why movies personify, symbolize and heighten the truth.  Depression takes the form of a monster (Babadook), tornadoes become divine intervention (A Serious Man), and Enemy just has a giant spider.

Movies have the freedom to embellish certain things to achieve a dramatic effect.  True stories become “based on” or “inspired by” true stories, and for the most part we go with it because it makes for a better movie, a better vehicle through which we can understand the heart of the story.

But All the Real Girls doesn’t do that.  It’s a form of resistance, an insistence on showing life as it is and can be.  I have to imagine it took a lot of work to carve out this story, using the same effort here to know what to exclude as another writer would use to summon up a Shyamalan-esque third act twist.

Green’s previous film, his first, was George Washington.  It’s been a year since I watched it, and much of the details evade me.  What I do remember is the sense of magical realism used to heighten the feelings of various characters in response to a sudden tragedy that befell them.  One character takes on a superhero persona, and part of the tragedy is that we can see the ways in which his imagination is used to cope with his real world circumstances.

This film is real life, for better or for worse.  The world may be foreign to a lot of people (myself included), but the people who populate it feel real.  It’s set in a small southern town in which it’s hard to see people ever leaving.  At one point Paul asks another person whether it’s possible to outgrow your friends or have them outgrow you.  He’s starting to see the bigger picture, and in that moment he’s like Luke Skywalker staring out at the two moons beyond his home desert planet.

There is certainly catharsis to this film but not in the ways you’d expect.  I find myself hanging onto the final shots of the film like I did at the end of Christopher Nolan’s Inception.  I knew what I wanted to see, but the film never showed it.  We here Noel tells Paul she loves him, but the final time we see them together, she walks away, leaving him alone next to a shattered car window.  It’s hard to know what to take away from this in terms of their literal relationship, but the film is about so much more.

The lasting sentiment of the film is the limited scope of youth.  You have your whole life in front of you, but it’s almost impossible to see.

Up Next: The Seventh Continent (1989), Columbus (2017), American Animals (2018)

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