GEORGE WASHINGTON A
USA (89 mi) 2000 ‘Scoped: David Gordon Green
I like to go to beautiful places where there's waterfalls and empty fields.
—Nasia (Candace Evanofski)
—Nasia (Candace Evanofski)
Indie films have never been the same after this release, now the Indie prototype, a film that became so critically praised for its bleak visual poetry and laid back, seemingly improvisational style, where the camera observes but never intrudes on the lives of a group of young kids, played by non-professionals. Set in the rural small town countryside of what feels like junkyards or abandoned warehouses near the train tracks, a group of young kids spend their summer hanging out. Oftentimes the viewer feels like they’re eavesdropping in the middle of conversations, as a recurring image is a group of kids sitting around with nothing to do as the camera captures the idle curiosity of young minds. In this way, we come to understand each of the characters and their relationship to one another. There are distinct groups, a group of mostly white male railroad workers who easily chat with the black kids hanging around, making sure they don’t steal their cars, but talking or joking with them as they pass the time, a group of young kids ages 8 to 14, who become the focus of the movie, also the older sisters who spend their time fixing one another’s hair and engaging in boy gossip, and the actual parents who are so poor and beaten down that they are near psychotic. Though the director is white, having grown up in Texas, the lives examined are mostly black, set in North Carolina where poverty is a given, as everyone is dirt poor, but the story is narrated with a strange mystical wisdom by Nasia (Candace Evanofski), a 12-year old girl who is seen breaking up with Buddy (Curtis Cotton III), who is a year older, but she considers him too immature for her tastes. Instead she’s attracted to George (Donald Holden), a quiet kid who was born with a permanently soft skull, where he wears a football helmet to protect it, without which he could suffer a tragic brain injury. They are joined by an amateur pair of car thieves, Vernon (Damian Jewan Lee) and Sonya (Rachael Handy), the oldest and youngest, Sonya being the only white in the group. Buddy is crushed and is seen receiving consolation from various friends, including Rico (Paul Schneider), one of the railroad workers. In this small circle of friends, life goes on.
Drawing on the stream of consciousness literary worlds of Southern writers William Faulkner, Harper Lee, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers and Truman Capote, certainly what stands out in this movie is the impressionistic way the story is told, with a brief flurry of small vignettes, each one given an added poignancy by a naturalist tone that runs throughout, expressed without an ounce of condescension, beautifully shot by Tim Orr, where the balance of wisdom beyond their years juxtaposed against the decaying landscape all around them adds an extra dimension not normally captured in movies today. These are the kinds of kids no one listens to, yet we listen intently to every word, and these are the kinds of places the world has forgotten, which are never shown in film or on TV, yet we are visibly moved by the meticulous attention to detail which adds an astonishing beauty to a bleak and forgotten landscape, all beautifully expressed with authenticity and utter sincerity. This plays out like a time capsule, where a kind of innocence unfolds, where adults are all but absent, yet what these kids yearn for or have to say is every bit as meaningful as any adult drama. Intoxicating and dreamlike, much of this feels like a reverie, but there is no escaping the truth of their lives, which haunts them every waking second. A tragic event occurs that changes their lives, that alters the focus of their languid afternoons, something purely accidental that is too big to share with the world which they have yet to fully understand, so it remains secret, something unspoken, that gnaws and eats at them as time goes on. Each has to answer in their own way, which can become mystifyingly incoherent, beautifully edited with an understated but artful elegance.
The world comes apart at the seams, yet it oddly stays just the same, wrapped in traditional small town values where a 4th of July parade becomes one of the biggest spectacles of the year, something that brings out a goodness in people. “Sometimes I smile and laugh at all the good things you're going to do. I hope you live forever,” Nasia tells George, an affirmation of hope that by all indications vanished long ago, yet there it is, plain and simple. This odd balance between the way it is and the way it could be is heartbreaking, as what did these kids do to deserve less of a chance than any of the rest of us? They speak of their futures as if they still have one, when we’re used to seeing pictures of wayward teenage youth who have tossed away theirs and will spend the rest of their lives rotting in some god forsaken jail because they never knew what it was to be loved or cared for. Abandoned at birth, some kids’ futures are taken away from them before they can even speak. But these kids are surprisingly prescient, as if they sense something different lies ahead, something good, something meaningful, where they still dare to dream for a better world even as all evidence points to eternal hardship and around them nothing but eviscerated decay. Occasionally reverting to slow motion or still images and using a minimalist electronic score by Michael Linnen and David Wingo that at times sounds reverential, this is a haunting work that comes at the viewer like overlapping waves, one after the other, revealing a timeless universality from a child’s eye, an unforgettable mood piece that examines life’s mysteries unlike any other, that stands alone in its grasp of simplicity and grace.