LOVE IS A PUZZLE. THESE ARE THE PIECES.
Films about First Love (note the captialisation) are often rather tricky things to pull off. If they’re not taken as flat out chick flicks and therefore almost completely disregarded by half the potential audience, then they tend to get received with a degree of cynical snorting and derision. Perhaps they have grown to forget what they were like when they first felt it, perhaps they are still too close to it to remember it fondly enough see it onscreen, perhaps they just haven’t felt it and so can’t relate to what they’re watching. For his second feature, director David Gordon Green wrote a script, with help from friend Paul Schneider, about that very thing. First Love as felt by two quite different people.
In a small town in the American South, Paul (Paul Schneider) is known for having sex with pretty much every girl in town. When his best friend’s younger sister, the virginal Noel (Zooey Deschanel), arrives back in town after years in boarding school, Paul has to prove to everyone, especially his friend Tip (Shea Whigham), that this is more than lust guiding him.
David Gordon Green and Paul Schneider have been working together for a while now, with Schneider being in Green’s early shorts and his feature debut George Washington. At some point during this time, they came up with the story that would become All the Real Girls, with the final script being written by Green. The actual plot of the film is one that most people will be familiar with: promiscuous guy meets virginal girl, falls in love, tries to change his ways for her. Pretty straightforward. However, whilst that may be what happens, that’s not really what the film is about. The promiscuous guy in question, Paul, is someone to whom physical congress means little because he’s had so much of it; emotional intimacy is something completely foreign to him because he’s never experienced it. The virginal girl, Noel, is without any kind of experience with that kind of love, either physical or emotional. Thus, the film is about the awkwardness, the bashful sense of joy, the fear of being that open to someone else, everything that makes the first time you feel those feelings as intoxicating as they are. It’s about the kind of idealism that comes over a person when they feel love for someone so much that they want to improve on themselves, better themselves for that someone because they deserve it. Yes, it’s somewhat naïve, but it doesn’t feel that way when you’re in it. The fact that he’s 22 and she’s 18 are almost irrelevant. They are still each other’s First.
The trajectory may be familiar, even some of the individual story beats may strike a chord of recognition, but what All the Real Girls has to set itself apart from the rest is its heart-on-its-sleeve earnestness. Without embarrassment, it recalls the strange sense of freedom that comes from being with someone that you can share everything with, say anything to. The kind of relationship where you can say to the other, “Sometimes I’m scared of myself, but I’m not scared with you,” just as easily as you can say, “Did you just fart?” It’s an honesty that is at once liberating, but equally scary because you know that the more open you are with that person, the greater the pain if they hurt you. And it sure does hurt when they do. Paul Schneider and Zooey Deschanel capture this couple wonderfully. They both give very natural, unaffected performances which means that, for all you may wish to brush off their cutesy back-and-forths, you don’t want to ruin this for them anymore than they do. You want them to be happy together. In their more emotional moments, both Schneider and Deschanel also get their frustrated inability to properly articulate themselves. Paul isn’t exactly the smartest guy in the world and Noel, despite her education and thoughtfulness, is even newer to these feelings than Paul, so they both struggle to tell the other what’s going on inside them.
This openness doesn’t just rest with our main couple, though. It extends beyond them to every other character. Tip, Paul’s best friend and Noel’s big brother, is given a moody intensity by Shea Whigham. He’s a guy who loves Paul like a brother, but he also knows him too well to be okay with his sister seeing him. For being kind of a lunkhead, he’s also not without some self-awareness. He knows he’s a screw-up and wants to be better, if not for his immature mindset. Paul’s mother Elvira, played superbly by Patricia Clarkson (when is she not superb?), is a woman of a rather deceptive dignity. Her day job has her play a full-on party clown to sick kids and her hobby sees her trying to mend very broken pianos, but she’s no quirky comedy role. Elvira is thankful for what her job has provided for her, but she would hate to see Paul have to settle like she did. She wants him to want more from his life, and it kills her to see him not trying. Benjamin Mouton’s Leland, Paul’s uncle and Elvira’s brother, is also quite touching as he recalls to Paul the pain of having had love, real love, and losing it not because of a fight, but because she died. He provides Paul with a sense of perspective in his relationship musings.
The filming itself is gorgeous, with the amber-coloured, almost rusty township carrying a sense of the desolate, but with some sense of affection. David Gordon Green grew up in a place like this, so it’s with some honest fondness that he recalls its memory. Here, people make do with what they’ve got. Hell, so do the animals. In one shot, there is what might just be the saddest, yet most heartening image you’ll see – a dog with no back legs walking comfortably on its front legs without problem. This town may be the place where things come to an end, but all they need is some attention and they’re still capable of producing something beautiful.
There are the occasional lapses in the film’s artifice, though. A scene with Paul and Noel standing together in a bowling alley halfway up a lane, leaning into each other, talking about things seems to push the boat out a little far. The scene is a little too designed, the body language too unnatural, that it all sticks out a bit. Another moment comes when Leland’s daughter Feng Shui sits with Noel’s younger brother Justin and, after they’ve both closed their eyes, talks about running on the ocean and over mountains and everybody loving you. It’s beautifully poetic, but it also threatens to derail the good will the audience has built up for the film. Fortunately, there’s never anything that gets in the way that badly, so the whole remains engaging enough throughout.
It’s easy to write off All the Real Girls as overly sentimental or self-consciously precious, and it certainly does brush up against that line a time or two, but to do so is to put a barrier up to the film before it gets started. It’s a sweet film, and is unashamedly earnest in talking about the happiness, sadness, joy and fear that everyone feels when they first feel real love, but are maybe just too emotionally immature to deal with it properly.