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Among The Ruins

Rural NC is the setting for tender romance

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If there exists a kind of Twilight Zone in the realm of filmmaking, I imagine that All the Real Girls is the sort of movie that would occupy it. There are Hollywood movies, made with their all-star casts and their million dollar budgets, and there are regional movies, made with a bunch of locals and an allocation of a couple thousand dollars, tops.But then there's the strange case of All the Real Girls, which doesn't quite fit in either camp. Writer-director David Gordon Green, a North Carolina School of the Arts grad whose first film, 2000's George Washington, quietly slipped onto the 10 Best lists of, among others, Roger Ebert and Time, has followed up with another movie that was shot entirely in rural North Carolina (in this case, Marshall, with additional work in the Asheville area). But because his debut picture created such a stir, Green was able to land a Hollywood producer, Jean Doumanian (best known for her work with Woody Allen), and a Hollywood actress, Zooey Deschanel (best known for supporting roles in Almost Famous and The Good Girl). And he's now been pegged to direct the screen version of A Confederacy of Dunces, with Drew Barrymore serving as producer and star and Steven Soderbergh attached as co-writer.

Upward mobility, indeed. But with All the Real Girls, positioned between the no-budget of his first film and the Tinseltown treatment of his third, has Green compromised his purity of vision in any way? Hardly. On the contrary, his sophomore effort is so laid back -- so in tune with the naturally sleepy rhythms of everyday existence -- that it feels unlike any love story I've seen in quite some time. It's the sort of motion picture that feels so authentic that had it attracted the participation of a big-time movie star (say, Kate Hudson or Reese Witherspoon), its verisimilitude would have been punctured as noisily as that of a balloon poked with a safety pin. Admittedly, this naturalistic approach to cinema has as many detractors as supporters (in other words, fans of the artificial fantasy South displayed in Sweet Home Alabama won't locate the romanticism in this picture's rusty mills and run-down homes), and Green's piece has already been alternately praised and damned. This past January at Sundance, it won a Special Jury Prize for Emotional Truth, yet many have echoed the sentiment of one wise guy I stumbled across on-line, who amusingly dismissed it as a dull movie that "will only appeal to sensitive males and women with lots of cats."

As the film opens, it becomes clear that this won't be a "boy meets girl" story, mainly because the picture commences with the boy having already met the girl. Paul (Paul Schneider, who also had a hand in the script), a 22-year-old guy with no real ambition in life, and Noel (Deschanel), an 18-year-old girl who recently returned from a childhood spent away at a girls' boarding school, have become sweethearts, albeit tentative ones. Paul has spent his entire life wooing women into bed and then dumping them immediately afterward. But with Noel -- luminescent, opinionated, easygoing, and a virgin to boot -- Paul feels a special connection, one that makes him want to do right by her. For her part, Noel feels similarly toward Paul -- "You're the first person I've ever wanted to talk to for more than five minutes... ever," she confesses.

They look good together, though it's understandable that their compatibility is lost on Paul's best friend Tip (Shea Whigham), who also happens to be Noel's brother. Tip and Paul have always been two peas in a pod -- Saturday nights spent getting drunk and getting laid -- and not grasping (or not believing) the depths that Paul truly cares for Noel, Tip isn't crazy to see his little sister with a guy notorious for breaking hearts all over town. Yet ultimately it isn't Paul who takes a misstep -- it's Noel -- and the remainder of the picture finds the pair working hard to stay in love and make something of their mutual respect and adoration for one another.

I'm not averse to the Hollywood strain of formulaic romantic comedies -- heck, I was even charmed by parts of the critically mauled How to Lose a Guy In 10 Days -- but there's something about the simplicity and directness of the relationship in All the Real Girls that truly touches the heart, and much of it has to do with the manner in which Green allows us to see his characters with their guards let down. There's a wonderful and endearing moment set in a bowling alley, which finds Paul so happy that he wants to do a spontaneous dance right there on the spot...and yet he doesn't want Noel to watch him. So she complies by turning around, and he begins his shuffle -- it's silent, it's goofy, and it's utterly sincere.

Green clearly has a strong love for -- and deep understanding of -- his small-town characters: When they say something that shows they're not the brightest bulbs in the box, it's a way of acknowledging their limitations, not a way of getting a cheap laugh at the expense of ignorant Southern yahoos. When Noel and her friend Bust-Ass (Danny McBride) engage in a conversation about the foods they eat and Noel asks, "What about, like, waffles and French toast?" Bust-Ass's reply -- "No, the places I go usually aren't that fancy" -- isn't meant as a punchline but rather as a simple fact of his rural life. Even the character of Noel's brother Tip, the logical choice to present as The Heavy in the story, is fully developed and allowed to expound on his fears and regrets.

The romance between Paul and Noel is so tender and mutually respectful -- when Paul declares, "I don't want to have sex with you," it hammers home the extent of his untainted intentions -- that we're completely floored, and hurt, by Noel's subsequent action; it's a tribute to Green's skills that we respond so strongly to any turbulence this seemingly picture-perfect romance might endure. I won't reveal how it all turns out, but I will say that Paul's statement after he's been damaged -- "If anybody smiles at me ever again, I'm gonna freak out" -- will bring a rueful smile to the lips of anyone who has ever loved and lost, even if only temporarily.

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