`Real Girls' is like a warm hug

Small town romance

March 28, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Director David Gordon Green strives to capture feelings beyond his characters' articulation. That quest suffuses his small town young-love story, All the Real Girls, with a febrile yearning that grows more affecting as the movie goes along.

It starts with a beautiful long build to a first kiss between an amiable, fuzzy-looking guy named Paul (Paul Schneider) and a big-eyed knockout named Noel (Zooey Deschanel). The scene announces a picture fashioned around gestures and tossed-off revelations. Noel is both the new girl in town - she's just graduated from boarding school - and the sister of Paul's closest friend, Tip (Shea Wigham). Paul wants to take things slowly because he sees her as a soul mate, unlike all the other available women he has already bedded and dropped. He's like a Budweiser frog trying to become a prince.

Noel is simultaneously intrigued by his wealth of "experience" and unsteady because of her comparative lack of it. This pair's combination of certainty in their growing passion and uncertainty about everything else is a refreshingly tentative jumping-off point for a two-pronged - and double-edged - coming-of-age movie. It pivots on the comedy and pathos of a couple going steady after high school, rather than, say, having an affair or getting engaged.

Schneider's reformed lothario refuses to fall back into the sort of group palship where guys feel they have a right to know how far a buddy has gone with a girl. Within the confines of a ragged village where folks work at the mill or fiddle with jalopies, whole solar systems of curious or confused friends and family members find Paul and Noel's unusual courtship triggers everything from bawdy jokes to primal rage and questions of identity.

Tip realizes he doesn't want Paul to date his sister because Tip sees too much of his own randy self in his friend. Noel, just finding her way through young-adulthood, and perhaps hoping to catch up to Paul's sexual maturity, becomes vulnerable to the lust-laced flirtation that can work like a sexual nightcap at a party.

The movie has an open-ended feel to it, but it's really built on orbits within orbits: in the characters' inner lives and in their social universe; in their well-worn homes and in the yards and parks of a North Carolina hamlet grooved with junkyard cars and beer cans. Of course, the movie's circularity can get irritatingly repetitive - especially when you realize you'll see more than one scene of Paul's mother (Patricia Clarkson) in a clown suit. (She's a buffoon-by-appointment for hospitals and invalids.) In this film, as in his previous George Washington, director Green lacks Robert Altman's knack for making a tight coil spiral outward without losing its spring.

But the performers are tremendous, particularly Deschanel, who can travel to the end of an emotional tether and then suggest the mysteries of change and growth that lie beyond. And, periodically, the characterizations and locations and actions line up with the catalytic rightness of the planets at the climax of 2001.

No scene in recent movies can make you happier than Paul and Noel hugging weirdly - as if they're imitating an A-frame - in the middle of a bowling lane. Once he's sure Noel isn't looking, Paul dances for joy. If theater seats permit, so will you.

All the Real Girls

Starring Paul Schneider and Zooey Deschanel

Directed by David Gordon Green

Released by Sony Pictures Classics

Rated R

Time 108 minutes

Sun Score * * *

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