In this world of ours that grows more complicated by the hour, there remain few truffles of quiet, slow musings on the age-old question of love and its miseries. Most cinematic attempts at approximating reality fail — they move too fast, dress too snappy, speak too candy-pink and artificial. All the Real Girls doesn’t break any new ground or expose heretofore-untold revelations. In fact, all it does is offer us a peek at a few key months in the life of a small-town boy named Paul. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s more than most movies have to give.
Paul (Paul Schneider, who wrote the story on which director David Gordon Green’s script is based) spends his days horsing around with his do-nothing friends, fixing cars and sleeping with half the women in town. He’s happy with the daily routine that’s settled on him as permanently as it’s settled on the rest of the town’s citizenry: Sit around and drink beer, toss rocks into the river, inhale the smell of cows and wasted potential.
It’s only when his best friend Tip’s (Shea Whigham, a dead ringer for Steve Zahn) little sister Noel (Zooey Deschanel) returns to town from boarding school that things start to change for him. Noel is different from the other girls he knows. She’s crossed the county lines and seen things Paul’s only read about in books. She’s forbidden fruit by the unwritten codes of male friendship. She makes him want to put all his bullshit aside and try a relationship based on the truth, ugly or beautiful.
So he does what his heart tells him. He lies naked with Noel, in more ways than one. Of course this comes back to haunt him, punishing him a thousand times worse than if he’d just done his usual sweet ’em-and-street ’em number on her. But despite what we learn about Paul’s past, it’s impossible to think he deserves it.
Green has willed an exquisite synthesis of moviemaking elements, a brief moment in time when the various bricks that go into building a feeling combine into a symphony of emotion. He also layers on a killer indie-hip sound track (The Promise Ring over the end credits? Yes, please!), refuses to introduce any larger issue (like the extinction of mountain goats or sawmill pollution) and casts unknown quantities with the responsibility of living up to his script. From the opening moments of the film, as Will Oldham’s “All These Vicious Dogs” gives way to a scene of tentative back-alley discussion between Paul and the object of his affection, there’s a precedent set of whispering the truth in such a way that it can’t be mistaken for anything but.
It’s Green’s casting choices in particular that seal his movie’s fate. Who are these people? We’ve never seen them before — Schneider looks like half of the best friends you’ve collected over a lifetime, and Deschanel has had only smaller roles in the past — and that’s what ultimately gives All the Real Girls the resonance its dreams portend. The movie would be all but ruined if these kids were Hollywood flavors of the week. There would be fakery involved, suspension of disbelief. With these actors, there’s no reason to believe they’re not who they appear to be on the screen. They do what we do, the only way they know how: Protect our younger sisters from the boys we know are bad and fight with our friends because what we see in them we hate in ourselves.
But what might be the best things about All the Real Girls are the forks in the story road that Green looks down and ignores. Paul doesn’t dream of escape from the smallness of his life. In another movie, he and Noel would be running off to Vegas in search of liberty and wealth. In this one, he’s staying put, growing as a person and struggling under the weight of brutally unfamiliar feelings.
Like the straightforward words of its characters, All the Real Girls is so simple and honest about its emotions that to use complex, flowery language to describe it would be cheap. And for a movie that puts so much of itself into telling the truth and crafting a tiny world where people say what they mean, that wouldn’t be fair. Or true. Or real.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W. of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].