George Washington, the first feature by 25-year-old David Gordon Green, is the year’s most fascinating American indie precisely because it’s the most baffling. This haphazardly lyrical, yet heavily symbolic, account of a tragic incident involving a racially mixed group of kids on the outskirts of a small Southern city is a true anxious object—it’s at once brilliant and inept.
Green’s intentions are as obscure as his command of film craft is unclear—his originality is indistinguishable from his mistakes. Not surprisingly, George Washington‘s curiouser-and-curiouser quality has been amply reflected in its reception: The movie was rejected by Sundance, the festival that logic dictates as its natural habitat, to premiere weeks later in Berlin’s International Forum of Young Cinema; there it became a word-of-mouth must-see that, despite strenuous marketing, was ignored by every major American distributor. Passed on by “New Directors/New Films,” another congenial showcase, George Washington surfaced instead at the New York Film Festival; having been dismissed by Variety in a perfunctory two-paragraph review, it was hailed by The New York Times as a movie for the ages.
Green, a native Texan, studied filmmaking in North Carolina, and that’s where George Washington was shot. The locations seem less a specific American reality than an emptied-out world, populated by the amiable survivors of some ancient cataclysm—perhaps the wreckage of regional granola cinema. George Washington feels sui generis because while it evokes a number of models it fails to successfully imitate any of them. Green’s arty, scene-setting montage, his use of slight slow-motion underscored by a portentous drone-tone, the movie’s skewed voice-over narration, its sumptuous Cinemascope compositions, and lush bucolic mood remind many people of Terrence Malick. This modest movie is draped in visual grandeur, like a kid trying on an overlarge suit—far from overweening, the effect is oddly disarming. (To add to the mystery, cinematographer Tim Orr gets an onscreen credit nearly equal to Green’s, but barely a mention in the press notes.)
Similarly, George Washington‘s teenage rat pack and derelict locations have prompted comparison to Harmony Korine’s confrontational Gummo. (In Berlin, Green even made the Korine-like assertion that his favorite movie was The Bad News Bears.) For all its troubling incidents, however, what’s most shocking about GW is its tender regard. The movie is unabashedly utopian. (Green lived communally with the cast and crew during production.) It also suggests Boaz Yakin’s Fresh in its programmatic subtraction of all popular culture from the lives of its child protagonists. (And, as with Fresh, GW was made by a white filmmaker who has been assumed to be black.) But, unlike Yakin, Green allows his performers remarkable space before the camera to simply be, whether surprisingly good or eloquently terrible.
Green’s nonprofessional cast is a lumpy blend of self-conscious kids and awkward adults—an equation that’s regularly complicated by many scenes in which the actors are called upon to riff and banter across generational lines. In addition to the narration, delivered with many a casual non sequitur by 12-year-old Nasia (Candace Evanofski), the characters are prone to soliloquies. Just about everyone in the movie is some sort of philosopher—except for the 13-year-old designated hero, the silent, self-contained George Richardson (Donald Holden), whom Nasia adores.
The scenes in which these kids discuss their precocious love lives and generally get up in each other’s business, with oversized Vernon (Damian Jewan Lee) aggressively wondering why Nasia dropped his pal Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) in favor of the inexplicable George, have a charming absence of profanity. The film’s unusual narrative progression reinforces its attempt to capture some imagined childish innocence, as does the backstory assigned its protagonist. The plates of George’s skull have not successfully melded; for much of the movie, he wears a football helmet to protect his soft head. But George is not the only vulnerable creature. Fooling around with a group of kids in an abandoned building, he gets his head bumped and inadvertently responds by hurling Buddy to the ground. The boy passes out and dies. The other children hide his body, complete with T. Rex mask, in some abandoned lot—a sort of Spielberg-meets-Los Olvidados maneuver.
As the town prepares to celebrate Independence Day, the kids start to freak—Vernon bonding with diminutive, stony Sonya (even younger than 12 and already a hardened car thief). Subsequent developments have little to do with solving the mystery of Buddy’s disappearance and much with a desire to somehow make things right. Rather than suspense, the movie dwells on absence. In the most astonishing ploy, George actualizes his wish fulfillment by saving another kid’s life and is declared by the newspapers to be the hero that Nasia tells us he always knew he would become. (George’s sense of destiny is reflected in the movie’s title, although not the least of its comic enigmas is the portrait of a smiling president George Bush on his family’s kitchen wall.) Solemnly directing traffic and checking smoke alarms in helmet, tights, and cape, George casts himself as the neighborhood superhero.
By any objective standard, George Washington is a meandering experience, filled with stilted performances and characterized by an erratic point of view. A missing poster identifies Buddy as 10, although he has earlier been referred to as 13. Scarcely an omniscient narrator, Nasia theorizes that “Buddy ran away because he still has a crush on me.” A scene in which George’s sullen and possibly violent uncle confesses his own childhood trauma (being sexually abused by a dog) is, like much else in the movie, simultaneously touching and ridiculous. (In a follow-up sequence, the man who has perhaps killed the mangy stray George adopted as a pet fashions the boy a sort of Davy Crockett cap from its remains.)
George Washington would not be so confounding were it less polished or more overtly fantastic—but the sense of failed magic realism is what gives the movie its pervasive sadness, which is to say, its magic. Having balanced his movie on the edge between poignance and absurdity (and worked without a net), Green provides the perfect vanishing act—leaving the audience wondering what he could possibly do for an encore.
A Time for Drunken Horses, one of the two Iranian first features that shared this year’s Camera d’Or at Cannes, begins with the sound of an adult interviewing a child but, compared to George Washington, this movie—set mainly in the Kurdish village where filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi was born—is straightforward observation.
A band of stoical children, saddled with adult responsibilities, compete for menial jobs in the village marketplace or, more arduously, serve as smugglers transporting contraband goods across the Iran-Iraq border. Gradually, it emerges that the protagonists are four or five orphaned siblings—one of whom, 15-year-old Madi, has failed to grow beyond the size of a small toddler and cries like a baby when the doctor gives him a shot. Cared for by his younger brother and sister (the performers are apparently dramatizing actual relationships), Madi is doomed to die in 10 days unless money can be raised for an operation to keep him alive for another six months.
Underdog tenacity in the face of hopeless odds is the indie credo. The 30-year-old Ghobadi, who was Abbas Kiarostami’s assistant on The Wind Will Carry Us, also set in Kurdistan, is Iran’s first Kurdish director. Perhaps the implications of this will be explained by the critic for a distinguished local weekly who, in the year’s most smugly brainless review, made the “sociological” observation that Kiarostami was like a third-world pest with a useless knowledge of English. For his part, Ghobadi labors under no compulsion to explain exactly what is going on. Most scenes plunge the viewer into the middle of a situation. The smuggling is blatant and messy—when Iraqi border guards routinely impound a truck full of contraband texts, the kids scramble home in the snow, perhaps for miles. (The title for this single-minded, sometimes harrowing movie comes from the smugglers’ practice of dosing their horses with vodka to keep them working in the cold.)
At one point, Madi’s eldest sister betroths herself to an Iraqi Kurd, imagining that this will help arrange for the operation. Madi is literally bundled up as part of the bridal procession, but the groom’s family reneges on the deal and refuses to take him. Ultimately, they buy off the bride’s siblings with a mule that the youngest boy will use to smuggle Madi into Iraq. It’s a bit startling to see the movie put forth the idea that Iraq is a more technologically advanced (and even safer) country than Iran. As the children brave the minefields to cross the border, the movie does as well.