My recent review of Beasts of the Southern Wild heralded it as something so uniquely its own that I praised it incessantly suggesting that it was indicative of something new in filmmaking. While I still thoroughly enjoyed that work and still think it reflects a grand change in independent cinema, I had never had the great pleasure of viewing George Washington, a directorial debut by David Gordon Green, whose, unfortunate, movement into stoner comedies has led me to never look into his ouevre. However, George Washington sat as one of the early works I desired from the Criterion Collection and thanks to a recent subscription to HuluPlus I was able to watch this poetic film. As for critical opinions there seem to be two fields of thought towards this film, the first suggests that it is a prententious exploitative film that borrows far to heavily from the playbook of Terrence Malick to be considered artistic and a second group who finds the cinematography, storyline and sheer atmospheric magic of this film to be indicative of rural southern life during its movement into a new millennium. I am firmly within the latter grouping and found George Washington to be an exceptionally beautiful film about coming-of-age in a world of absurdisms, one that causes an individual to have a magical realist outlook towards the world, while also dealing with some intensely real issues. The images in this film melt off the screen, at times literally peeling away and flow so smoothly despite changing subject matter that the comparisons to Malick are obvious, yet to suggest that this film rips his work off is to both discredit Malick and to misunderstand Green's film. There are things such as the breaking on the filmic space by causing the image to distort that do not fit within the stylings of Malick, while the poetics and free floating narration of the film are clearly similar. Yet, where Malick seems to go further into pondering, Green finds answers in the present, all be it ones equally ambiguous. Furthermore, there exists an underlying humor to George Washington that is currently extinct within the work of Malick, but from what I understand he is to be making a comedy in the coming year...so that could all change. Regardless, George Washington is a thing of beauty and incredibly visceral, yet understated. You may have seen moments of this film elsewhere, but its collective offering is purely its own.
George Washington centers around everything but the first president of The United States, and while the main characters name is indeed George (Donald Holden) nothing else about him is presidential, of course this is 2000 well before the election of Barack Obama. George is a young African-American boy who lives with his fiery-tempered uncle and subdued mother, and voyages around his rural Southern town wearing a football helmet, because of a rare skull condition that makes heavy contact and wetness detrimental to his survival. His friends include the wise-cracking Buddy (Curtis Cotton III), who has an unusual penchant for wearing a velociraptor mask, Buddy's off and on girlfriend Nasia (Candace Evanofski) and Vernon (Damian Jewan Lee) a large boy who uses his authoritative figure in very few situations. Aside from the young groups explorations and pontifications we are also provide a semi-regular glimpse into the some of the lives of working class young adults in the community, focusing specifically on Rico (Paul Schneider) who is often seen engaging in conversations with the youth. The life they young people lead is not particularly easy and constant references to their lower-class living pop up throughout the film and, as such, their adventures often lead them to unusual places whether it be conversations in the pews of churches or the recitation of Shakespeare in a dilapidated community recreational hall. One of these unusual encounters occurs in a bathroom, in which, George furious at Buddy for knocking him into the wall, pushes Buddy back, ultimately, causing him to slip on some water and bust his head open, an accident that proves fatal. Panicking the group attempts to hide the body of Buddy in an abandoned house outside of town, only for George to feel guilty and eventually place the body in the river to be later discovered. While the group never confess to their accidental murder, Vernon, along with a young girl named Sonya (Rachael Handy), who was also present at Buddy's death attempt to steal a car and escape from the city, with terrible results. On the other hand, George attempts to counter his actions by going out of his way to save lives, donning a wrestling leotard, cape and his helmet he becomes a super hero in his mind.
George Washington manages to catch so many social reflections and philosophical inquiries within what appears to be a rather limited narrative net. We as viewers are asked to ponder both the state of social equity as it relates to class, race, gender and even regional difference, but most importantly what role one's age has on their ability to confront the tragedies of the world, both affecting them and their loved ones. George's room is by no accident adorned with a photograph of a smiling George H.W. Bush who appears to linger over his every reflection and action. As is now well known, Bush, and his successor, failed to properly provide concern for the southern rural poor, despite playing heavily on this identity to earn votes. By extension, however, George learns of these oppressions by not experience them himself, but seeing them through the pain and suffering of his psychologically troubled uncle, brilliantly named Damascus (Eddie Rouse). Even George's interactions with Rico problematize notions of oppression, because while Rico is certainly quite open-minded in his race relations, even dating a black girl during the film, his progressive ideals do not necessarily reflect that of his entire town. When George saves the life of a young white boy, the mother comes to thank George personally, and it is impossible to ignore her trepidation as she approaches the house that to her clearly houses the other. Yet these elements of the film are entrenched within the eyes of the youth who are its subject, death, poverty and racism are not facts to them, but moments of uncertainty that are better explained by notions of fantasy and humor than grounded reason. It is perhaps Nasia's professing on challenging god or Buddy's brilliant dinosaur Shakespeare monologue that manage to show that not all their ignorance is unintentional, instead; they choose when to ignore tragedy in life, as some awful things simply must not be acknowledged because no amount of explanation and maturity can justify their existence.
Key Scene: The film has many, but I will constantly remember the one of Buddy quoting Shakespeare in a velociraptor mask. It is forever burned into my memory, quite welcomely I do admit.
I watched this on Hulu and while it was a great introduction I cannot wait to purchase a copy and neither should you.