George Washington

Feb 7, 2001 at 12:00 am

Writer-director David Gordon Green’s debut feature has the kind of occasional awkwardness that can be attributed to a tight budget and/or inexperience, and a wafer-thin story line which dissolves before the movie ends, but you haven’t seen anything quite like George Washington. Or maybe you have.

Focusing on a small group of mostly black children in an unspecified rural community full of rusting metal and weedy lots, and using nonprofessional actors, Green has chosen to present this meager milieu via luscious cinematography and Cinemascope. Add a preternaturally poetic 12-year-old narrator and naturally Terrence Malick, master of the painterly composition and the counterpoint voice-over, comes to mind. But the resemblance is superficial — Green has his own trancelike sense of pacing and a disquieting insight into the world of unsupervised children.

The philosopher-narrator is Nasia (Candace Evanofski). At the film’s beginning she has just broken up with the amiably nerdy Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) and set her sights on the introspective George (Donald Holden). George’s inwardness seems like a grown-up trait to Nasia, though much of his natural reticence is derived from a skull condition which has left part of his brain exposed, to the point where he has to avoid immersing himself in water and walks around wearing a football helmet. Rounding out this band are the big and surly Vernon (Damien Jewan Lee) and the blond, waiflike Sonya (Rachael Handy).

The main adults in the film are a group of white railway workers we usually see lounging about on their lunch break (it’s immediately apparent that the grown-up nonprofessional actors have lost that natural talent which the children have in abundance) and George’s Uncle Damascus (Eddie Rouse), a complicated sadist. Though this is a mixed-race group, the issue of race never comes up and it seems like a willful omission — one keeps expecting one of the white workers to hurl a racial epithet at the black kids who keep pestering them.

But Green’s realism isn’t that harsh and even though the central event in the film is the accidental killing of one of the children, the mood remains more sad than brutal. Only during an unconvincingly hopeful last portion does he seem to lose control of his material. Up until then this portrayal of the dreamlife of young people adrift is an extraordinarily beautiful, poignant and original film.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].