Directed by David Gordon Green. USA. 2003.

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All the Real Girls, the latest film by David Gordon Green (George Washington), travels a thin line between art and artifice and is at times borderline insufferable. The story about young people with little prospects in an economically depressed mill town in North Carolina has the quality of a dream, often impeccably authentic; other times lost in a sea of poetics that feels staged and inorganic. Paul, a 22 year-old played by Paul Schneider, has a reputation as a womanizer and claims he has slept with 26 women though he seems unconvincing as a Casanova type. He is friends with Noel (Zooey Deschanel), a vulnerable and inexperienced 18-year old girl who has just returned from six years at a girl's boarding school. 

The film strives for naturalism: "I'm looking at that old bucket, thinking, 'I like you", Noel says to Paul, "I like you because I can say what's on my mind". Other times it just feels phony when she tells Noel "I wish it didn't hurt with every thought of you. You have my heart". Uncomfortable about his past sexual conquests, Paul tries to prove that Noel is different from all the other girls by refusing to have sex with her but this just adds another layer of tension. 

Paul works for his Uncle Leland (Ben Mouton) in his garage but spends most of his spare time hanging out with his slow-witted buddies Tip (Shea Whigham), Bo (Maurice Compte) and Bust-Ass (Danny McBride). Paul's relationship with Noel angers her protective brother Tip even though Paul is one of his best friends and, after a confrontation that threatens violence. Tip yells at Paul pathetically as he is walking away, "We ain't friends no more, you ain't even in my top ten." Paul lives with his mother Elvira (Patricia Clarkson) who works at a local hospital as a clown to entertain sick children. 

Elvira loves her son but he reminds her too much of all the men in her life who came and went. "You're not educated, honest, or strong", she tells him and "You don't have any faith like every other man that's ever been in my life." When he dresses up in a clown outfit to help her out at the children's ward and breaks into a spontaneous dance, the film delivers one of its few inspired moments. As the film progresses, Paul and Noel work slowly toward establishing a level of trust. They engage in conversations about their family, their past, and future hopes but the trust is threatened and the relationship stumbles into unfamiliar territory when Noel spends a weekend at a house party. 

There is nothing smooth or polished about the characters. They are frustratingly inarticulate, yet there is an honesty in the way Mr. Green perceives them that is miles from typical Hollywood cynicism. With gorgeous scenery and a moody indie-rock soundtrack, Mr. Green has a way of drawing us into his world of the quirky and offbeat and the film captures the uncertainty and fears of first love. Ultimately, however, for all the charm and the "sincere" conversations, there is too little probing of the main characters for me to feel that I understood them as real people. All the Real Girls is a sweet film but I found it too superficial and precious to be fully satisfying.

Howard Schumann
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