There are several things you anticipate and forgive in low-budget debut features: bad dialogue, rough acting and most of all, low quality cinematography. David Gordon Green’s beautifully shot and acted as well as well-written debut George Washington rejects all of those commonalities, and delivers a film that would be impressive even for a veteran filmmaker.
George Washington doesn’t so much tell a story, rather Green focuses on expressing the frustration and feeling of growing up in this small town. As the pre-title sequence begins, immediately we see a stunningly confident filmmaker. The opening sequence flows like one of Malick’s later films, as we meet each character in the film. The power of this opening sequence is so strong that by the time the title, George Washington, hits the screen you feel as if you have just seen a complete short film.
The film follows several kids in a small town as they meander through the summer, unsure of what to do or what to feel. As tragedy strikes, the film doesn’t change gears, instead, it seems to continue on, unsure how to feel just like the characters. As the film isn’t so caught up in telling a story, a mood is established straight off the bat to capture the audience’s attention. Through the flowing nature of the editing, you feel almost entranced, as if you are unable to take your eyes off the screen. Green keeps this hold on the audience for the entire picture, and it is what makes the film such a pleasure to view.
The risk of the coming-of-age story, especially one with kids as young as these, is the inability to get realistic performances from the child actors, not to mention from the dialogue. This is one of Green’s greatest talents, as he can pull the most realistic performance from all of his actors. It is what makes the film work, as he lets his actors react as they would naturally. While the film may feel like a documentary in terms of the realism of the performances and feelings, the film is shot quite differently.
Green, and his DP Tim Orr, are able to capture beauty in the run-down buildings of North Carolina. With the decision to shoot in 35mm on such a low-budget, Green ran the risk of not having enough money to complete the film. However, the risk was worth it as the film never feels cheap, it feels lush and full of life. It was the film that made me realize how much beauty can be captured in the most seemingly boring places.
As accomplished and confident as the film is, it certainly feels like a debut feature. This is not a mark against the film, rather an observation. The reason it feels this way is the level of experimentation, especially near the end. As they try things, see what works, we get the impression these are first time filmmakers. That being said, as the end product works on such a perfect level, this experimentation is not a fault.
David Gordon Green’s beautiful debut, George Washington, is a film that will always stay in my heart as special as it was the first of his films I saw. It introduced me to a methodology of filmmaking that focussed more on mood than story. With nary a complaint, Green’s debut is a near perfect film – one that creates a mood that will stay with you for a very long time.