Over the last few years, director David Gordon Green has taken a lot of abuse from his critics. To some of us, writing scathing reviews of egregiously broad yukfests like Your Highness and The Sitter has felt like an act of tough-love intervention, as though it were possible to shame this once-promising filmmaker into refocusing his energies on projects worthy of his talents. (And maybe it is possible: His two most recent films, last year’s Prince Avalanche and next month’s Joe, are returns to form.) There is, of course, a certain unsavory entitlement to this “play your early stuff” mode of criticism. Like any artist, Green should feel free to follow his muse wherever it takes him; if he’d rather make stoner comedies than tender indie dramas, so be it.
All that said, it’s hard not to offer unsolicited career advice to the director when his recent output falls so short of his fledgling features—especially his very first one, 2000’s George Washington, which Criterion has finally released on Blu-ray. Filmed in North Carolina around the turn of the millennium, with a cast of mostly adolescent unknowns, this disarmingly poetic coming-of-age story established Green’s talent for blending small-town realism with mythic Deep South romanticism. No list of prodigious American debuts is complete without the movie, a vibrant vision of childhood from a director—then just 25 years old—not so far from childhood himself.
George Washington is a young man’s film, with all of the positive (and a few of the negative) connotations such a description implies. Green was fresh out of academia, his surname apropos of his experience, when he gathered a group of college buddies—among them cinematographer Tim Orr and the actor Paul Schneider—to shoot his ramshackle portrait of working-class America, using equipment rented on the cheap from the set of Dawson’s Creek. To create a credible sense of community, the filmmaker established his own community, relying chiefly on non-professional performers and fostering an environment of collaboration and improvisation. That “feeling our way through” vibe is reflected in the final product: If it’s a little too earnest, and occasionally awkward in its flailing for profundity, that’s because Green treats preteen philosophy and psychology as his guide. He’s made the rare film about adolescence that feels possessed by an adolescent spirit.
Set in a impoverished nowhere town, colored by both the verdant green of nature and the orange-red stain of rusting metal, George Washington steeps viewers in the sorrow and the beauty of its multicultural milieu. (Orr’s gorgeous 35mm photography, integral to the film’s hypnotic atmosphere, looks terrific on Blu-ray.) During an endless, sweltering summer, several pipsqueak dreamers sort through the common soap opera of youth. Among a rich ensemble of locals—of latchkey adventurers and their mixed-up, grownup counterparts—three protagonists emerge: Nasia (Candace Evanofski), whose Malickian musings provide a running narration, dumps the bespectacled Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) for the more serious George (Donald Holden), a teenage boy cursed with the soft, fragile skull of an infant. A more structured, less observational film might have treated this nominal love triangle as a dramatic focus. Green, by contrast, seems content simply luxuriating in the company of his characters, eavesdropping on their precocious conversations and soaking up their nascent wisdom. Even when George Washington tilts into tragedy, yanking its heroes into a premature adulthood, the hangout vibe is sustained. Narrative beats never hijack Green’s mood-privileging methodology.
As Armond White notes in his uncharacteristically gushing Criterion essay, the film’s title is also important. Green is exploring the myth of American opportunity, the notion that anyone—even those, like the film’s destitute characters, who are denied social privilege—can fulfill the promise of the country’s forefathers. And just as its characters square their own identities with the national one, George Washington glances backward through cinema history while forging its own path forward—filtering the naturalism of Charles Burnett’s Killer Of Sheep through the grandeur of Terrence Malick’s Days Of Heaven, and coming up with something wholly unique in the process. In the years since, the film has inspired its own descendants, its DNA detectable in everything from Beasts Of The Southern Wild to those evocative Levi’s “America” ads. There’s something admirable about Green refusing to spend the remainder of his days simply watering down the affect of his first feature. At the same time, it’s hard not to bemoan the career that could have been. George Washington, like its namesake, set the bar pretty high.