March 27, 2014 - 1:39pm
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay reflecting on David Gordon Green's George Washington (2000), was written by UW Madison student Ryan Waal (class of 2015). Green personally presented George Washington at the 2001 Wisconsin Film Festival. Green will appear in person at the April 3 Opening Night screening of the Wisconsin Film Festival with his new film, Joe, starring Nicolas Cage. Tickets for the screening of Joe are currently "rush only". George Washington has just been released on blu-ray by the Criterion Collection.

David Gordon Green’s George Washington stands alongside Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Richard Linklater’s Slacker as one of the most auspicious no-budget debuts in recent film history. Made for only $42,000 with mostly non-professional actors, the film’s small theatrical release prevented it from achieving the same breakout success as those other two films, but strong critical praise and festival showings helped Green rise to prominence as a major new player on the indie scene. But George Washington’s importance for Green’s career can sometimes overshadow the film itself—a lyrical, inspired, bizarre, permanently memorable parable that conjures an entire world unique both in setting and in feeling.

It takes place in an unidentified lower-class town in North Carolina, a town colored in various shades of brown, brimming with dilapidated buildings, dirt, excrement, landfill and stray animals. Despite the setting, this movie is hardly concerned with social messages about poverty—Green devotes his energy to crafting a tapestry of unique and complex characters. There are Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) and George Richardson (Donald Holden), two young boys fighting for the affection of Nasia (Candace Evanofski), who narrates the story. Their friends, the older, larger Vernon (Damian Jewan Lee) and the tiny, monotone Sonya (Rachel Handy) play around town, steal cars and harass a group of eccentric train mechanics who provide much of the film’s comic relief. George, whose father is in jail, lives with his Aunt Ruth (Janet Taylor) and Uncle Damascus (Eddie Rouse), a hot-tempered rail-and-woodworker desperately afraid of animals.

George Washington begins innocuously as a tale of young love set against this backdrop of colorful individuals; in the film’s opening scene, Nasia dumps Buddy for George. It’s a scene at once heartbreaking and mirthful—these kids are too young to understand what love really means. Soon though, the tone and focus of the film changes. George is implicated in two major events: the death of one child, the rescue of another. The complicated juxtaposition of these two events, the way George and his friends wrestle with them internally and the acceptance they ultimately find are the center of this film. Green unspools an enormously complicated morality play and places it in the midst of a coming-of-age story, making the film an unusual, yet captivating genre hybrid.

Viewers of George Washington will almost certainly pick up on at least one of Green’s stylistic influences early on: that would be Terrence Malick, of whom Green is a self-professed partisan (Malick co-produced Green’s Undertow in 2004). Green incorporates a great deal of Malick’s aesthetic: the lyrical, meditative voiceover narration of children; the languid pacing; the exhaustive use of natural imagery and his general emphasis of feeling over narrative. Green overtly acknowledges Malick’s influence upon him in one scene, when he essentially recreates the final shot of Malick's Days of Heaven (1978) by having George walk along a railroad track.

Like that film, George Washington is largely concerned with the way children grapple with the trauma and complexity of adulthood. Nassia’s voice-over narration recalls Linda Manz, whose innocent musing buffers and frames the adults’ story in Heaven. Both directors see childhood as a period of objective purity, and both films convey the loss of that purity by throwing the characters straight into the dark realities of life.
But it would be dismissive and unfair to say that Green merely copies Malick’s style; Green has talents and idiosyncrasies that no other director has. Malick, for instance, never incorporates humor in his movies in the same way Green does here—he knows just how long to hold an awkward pause and when to cut a shot for maximum comedic effect. When George becomes a town hero for rescuing a young boy from the county pool, his newfound confidence transforms him (both mentally and sartorially) into a superhero, providing surprising yet tonally appropriate levity to a heavy story.

Green is also willing to let his narrative bloom out into many different strands, incorporating asides with characters that appear unimportant. One of the great surprise moments in the film involves Damascus explaining his fear of dogs to George. He tells a traumatic, formative story from his childhood that changes our opinion of him from a selfish jerk to a fragile, human person. The scene makes us wonder how George will be changed by his experiences, what fears and ideologies coagulate within his mind. The narrative may seem disjointed and unfocused at times, but it is the thematic rather than causal relationships between the characters that makes this film fascinating and rewatchable.

You may be wondering what the title means. I don’t know either. Nasia tells us repeatedly throughout the film that George wants to be the President of the United States, and George’s bedroom prominently features a portrait of George H.W. Bush. Perhaps we are meant to laugh at and pity George’s ambitions. Or perhaps we are meant to consider the childhoods of our own heroes, and wonder what moments in their lives made them who they are today. Presidents, like lawyers, I suppose, were children once.

I don’t know, and part of me doesn’t care. Many elements of George Washington remain puzzling and unclear. Some may say this makes the film flawed; I say it makes it a classic.