What if they gave a documentary and nobody came? That’s the question I’m left with after the stream of childhood consciousness that is George Washington. What story there is here is fictional, hobbled together by writer/director David Gordon Green and his cast of nonactors, but I can’t help but feel that Green would have preferred to make a slice-of-life documentary about the ruined lives of the kids of the postindustrial South… if only he didn’t have to give up the control a fictional film allows a filmmaker. The result is a film that fails to satisfy on any level.
“George always knew he’d be a hero,” 12-year-old Nasia (Candace Evanofski) tells us in her voiceover narration. She’s a bit obsessed with George (Donald Holden), a sensitive, otherworldly kid whom she believes is, at 12, more grown-up than the boyfriend she just dumped, 13-year-old Buddy (Curtis Cotton III). George gets his chance at heroism, though it is tempered with irony, as it comes in the wake of a tragedy he witnessed — and then compounded — along with his friends Vernon (Damian Jewan Lee) and Sonya (Rachael Handy).
But the ways in which these kids deal with their secret knowledge of what they were a party to is almost beside the point here. Green’s feature film debut eschews plot — not much happens here — to wallow in a documentary-style exploration of childhood disillusionment and the ironic ways in which dreams can come true. Green eavesdrops on his characters as they talk in ways children never do when adults are around — as Vernon dreams of escape to his own planet, as Sonya confides that she “ain’t no good,” as Nasia and her friend chatter about how they’d like to get pregnant and have a baby to love them the way that guys can’t. The conversations and the cast are banally realistic, yet they feel contrived because they never take us anywhere with the characters — they feel invented out of whole cloth as if to demonstrate how ordinary ordinary can be.
The same could be said of the film as a whole. Not content to let the people and places speak for themselves, Tim Orr’s lush cinematography fetishizes the decay and ruin of the kids’ world: the rundown, crumbling buildings, the junkyards, the overgrown railroad tracks, even the kitchen sinks full of dirty dishes and the sweat-stained sheets of George’s bed are shot with a warm glow that feels uncomfortable and inappropriate, considering the ravaged lives of those who live among it all. George Washington showcases ugly places with a beauty they don’t deserve, a beauty Green doesn’t let us see them earn. Unless he intends for us to imagine that hopelessness is beautiful — these kids are all too aware that they have nothing to look forward to and nothing to lose.
Filmed with no sets, no controlled environments, no professional actors, and little more than ambient light and sound, this is practically a Dogme 95 film, a triumph of style over very little substance, so self-conscious and affected that it is willing to sublimate story and character to Art. In a storytelling medium like film, that’s unforgivable.