David Gordon Green's "All the Real Girls" is a love story that de-emphasizes story. That is, it's far more interested in the complexities of love - those thorny, hard-to-reconcile feelings - than the conventions of a standard romantic plot.
Thus, "All the Real Girls" doesn't hook you in the way that, say, "Maid in Manhattan" or "Two Weeks Notice" does. Those movies, like most mainstream romances, seduce you into vicariously living out somebody else's fairy tale. You know that the girl and guy will wind up together, you can easily guess the obstacles that will hold them off, and you watch in delicious anticipation of that final all-is-right-with-the-world kiss. "All the Real Girls" is to be experienced more from the inside. Its purpose is to conjure up emotions, to capture moments that ring true, rather than to carry you through a cinematic tunnel of love.
Like Green's assured debut, "George Washington," also influenced by Terrence Malick's elliptical, visually rich "Days of Heaven," the new film is in no hurry to reveal itself. Its relaxed rhythms give you time to register the meaning of the silences as well as the words and to get a feel of the world surrounding the characters, in this case the small, industrial town of Marshall, N.C.
Green, who co-wrote the screenplay with his leading man and college classmate Paul Schneider, begins the story with what would be the anticipated payoff in other romances: the first kiss, in this case between 22-year-old Paul and Noel (Zooey Deschanel of "Almost Famous"), the 18-year-old sister of Paul's best friend Tip (Shea Wingham). Green doesn't need to show you their backgrounds, the cute way they met, the moment they realized their mutual attraction, because the vital information is conveyed in the way they talk, their body language and the magnetic force between them, which attracts us as well. With cinematographer Tim Orr shooting the couple in silhouette in one of his typically long, exquisite takes, Green gets a greater romantic charge out of a kiss on the palm than most movies do with explicit sex scenes.
Key conflicts are laid out in this opening scene as well. Paul is reluctant to make his move on Noel because he doesn't want her to seem like one of his many conquests. He's also worried about how Tip will respond to the news, given that the two male buddies know each other's womanizing histories.
These issues play out, but not predictably. The plot elements take a back seat to the couple's feelings and the irrational places they lead. Green may convey a highly charged romantic streak, but his vision of love remains defined by frayed ends. The movie is particularly effective at capturing how a relationship can change in opposition to the will of both parties. When Noel gets a dramatic haircut, Paul can't help but see her differently, and neither can we.
Schneider brings a regular-guy appeal to Paul, a guy who wishes he could erase his socially callous past just as he hooks up with a girl who's just realizing the world of experiences open to her. Deschanel, whose wide, pale-blue eyes could pierce the hardest armor, is consistently surprising in subtle ways. Noel is awkward, delicate, disarmingly direct and charmingly scattered, whether she's relating to Paul a nonsensical dream or just whispering, "Hello, hello, hello, hello ¿?"
At times "All the Real Girls" is overwrought, particularly in the last third, and it often skirts with preciousness. In a giddy highlight, Paul performs a happy dance behind Noel, but first you must get past the setup, as he and Noel embrace awkwardly in the middle of an empty bowling alley. The image is striking in a gift-wrapped way.
The movie also includes one of my least favorite stock ingredients: a bittersweet clown, in this case Paul's mother, Elvira (Patricia Clarkson), who performs for sick kids and in one scene drags along a begrudging Paul, thus briefly raising the number of bittersweet clowns to two. Otherwise, the relationship between Paul and his mother is well etched, and Clarkson, as usual, disappears into her role.
You also get a good feel for Paul's relationship with his buddies, including a wisecracker named Bust-Ass (Danny McBride), and unlike your standard, Hollywood-ized outpost filled with quirky locals, this small Southern town lives and breathes.
In the end, "All the Real Girls" is a small movie about big emotions, with Green capturing the rush of love and sting of heartbreak with great vividness. Not a whole lot happens, aside from characters' worlds being shattered, at least for a time.
3 stars (out of 4) "All the Real Girls"
Directed by David Gordon Green; written by Green, Paul Schneider; photographed by Tim Orr; edited by Zene Baker, Steven Gonzalez; production designed by Richard Wright; music by Michael Linnen, David Wingo; produced by Jean Doumanian, Lisa Muskat. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday, Feb. 28. Running time: 1:48. MPAA rating: R (language, some sexuality).
Paul - Paul Schneider
Noel - Zooey Deschanel
Elvira Fine - Patricia Clarkson
Leland - Benjamin Mouton
Bo - Maurice Compte
Bust-Ass - Danny McBride Tip - Shea Wingham
Mark Caro is the Chicago Tribune movie reporter.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times