'Grace" is not a word that often comes to mind with American films these days, but it fairly abounds in the work of the brilliant young director David Gordon Green. His first feature, George Washington, was a Southern reverie, elegant and strange, an extended contemplation on race, childhood, death and America. It had a lyrical, free-floating quality that hadn't been seen in US cinema since the early days of Terrence Malick (who, not surprisingly, has now enlisted Green to tackle one of his scripts).
Green's follow-up, All The Real Girls, is, on the face of it, a more conventional proposition - a small-town love story. And heaven knows the independent sector has been creaking with those from way back. A young couple fall in love, everything's peachy, then after a while it's not, and we leave with a lump in our throat at the very least. Yet what's audacious in the film is how Green embraces the ordinariness of the story, even its inconsequentiality. This drama could be happening in a million small towns daily, from Minnesota to Mali: what happens to Green's lovers is hardly headline stuff to the wide world, but to them, it's the biggest story that's ever been. All The Real Girls observes - even celebrates - both the necessity and the folly of that lovers' delusion.
The setting is a small North Carolina mill town, where it seems to be permanent autumn. The lovers are Paul (Paul Schneider) and Noel (Zooey Deschanel): she's a virgin and the sister of Paul's tough-guy buddy Tip (Shea Wingham), while he's the town Lothario, with a trail of bitter chagrin in his wake. Tip's not happy about Paul getting close to Noel, but Paul knows that this one is different, that Noel is the girl he wants to treat right.
From the start, we expect a Romeo and Juliet drama, but Green gives us nothing of the kind. It's astonishing how quickly and easily the threatening tension between Paul and Tip is defused - there's a skirmish, intercut with flashbacks to Paul's career as a heartbreaker, then the conflict is absorbed into the flow of life. The film is interested not in the superficial drama of screen romance, but in the ordinariness of everyday love, its rhythm: the way people move and touch and talk to each other, the all-absorbing, quasi-infantile obsessiveness of it.
Green has a fine ear for lovers' dialogue: this is a film in which people talk to each other - even if they're just babbling - and it actually means something. Young love comes across as a sort of constant free improvisation: Deschanel is wonderful at catching Noel's earnest lucidity about being in love, her slightly self-conscious over-earnestness. We sense that Paul and Noel hit it off because they find they can talk rubbish with each other, although in fact everyone here seems to communicate for much of the time in a semi-nonsensical playground language: Paul demonstrates a game where you have to speak in mock Red Indian formulas - "Strong as an eagle, fast as tea" - while Noel recalls a dream in which "I was so happy that I invented peanut butter." Green also has a remarkable sense of body language: when the couple first kiss, in the long, stationary opening shot, Paul does a little prefatory routine of mock-coy gestures, taking Noel's hand and dusting it with playful reverence. Green has chosen a cast every bit as attuned to intimacy as his camera is. We believe all the more in Paul's bad side because Paul Schneider makes him so boyishly artless and generous; Schneider's vulnerable features recall a not-yet battered, less potato-like John C Reilly. If you saw Deschanel's sharp-mouthed drugstore worker in The Good Girl, you'll know how dazzlingly alert this actress is: her twitchy rhythms and husky voice give the knowing, worried ingénue Noel a fund of intelligence that we can see she's barely begun to use yet.
As in so many recent American films, the show is stolen by Patricia Clarkson as Paul's mother: she's able to give us a complex, contradictory sense of a tender, reproving, resentful, besotted mother, while actually wearing a clown suit and pancake make-up (her and Schneider's jerky clown dance at a children's hospital is an inspired piece of jubilantly mad ballet).
Admittedly, the line Green walks between poetry and preciousness is dangerously thinner than in George Washington. He and cinematographer Tim Orr explore a delicate impressionism, with arresting images that usually stay just the right side of pictorial - russet woods, industrial chimneys, water quivering in the bombed-out skeleton of a warehouse. Characters and story simply do not exist apart from the film's sense of place, with which they're as tightly interwoven as they are with its overall style. Green creates a buzz, for want of a better word: a sense of the subliminal vibrations between things and people, image and sound. Yet at moments, it can all come across awkwardly folkloric, nearly kitsch, too close to the Americana of an REM video. And at the end, when two children converse enigmatically, then Paul lectures his dog, the balance tips too far. Visually, you'll need a tolerance for autumnal golden light. Yet, though there's just a spoonful too much of syrup, at least with Green you know it's not factory syrup but maple straight from the wood. He's a master evolving before our eyes: do not miss.
If there's a diametrical opposite to Green in US cinema, it would have to be someone like Joel Schumacher, a director for whom style is an endlessly adaptable instrument that does whatever is required by the job of the moment. In Veronica Guerin, Schumacher plays it doggedly gritty for the story of the Irish journalist shot dead after investigating a Dublin drug racket. The basic material is nothing if not riveting, but Schumacher takes a businesslike script by Carol Doyle and Mary Agnes Donaghue and turns it into a sombre crawl up till the end, when he gives it a grimly bombastic turn. The only things here that might qualify as individual Schumacher touches are a moment where the Guerins do a cheery dance to "Everlasting Love", and a cameo by the director's favourite, Colin Farrell. Both are very bad ideas.
Schumacher is not good on restraint or on fine shading. The horror of smack-ridden estates is nothing short of Dickensian, with waifs huddling in bombed-out needle-strewn dens; gangster John Gilligan is signalled as pure evil the moment he enters - a thankless role for Gerard McSorley, who manages to give him some interesting colour as a joyless little terrier of a man and a pompous social climber to boot.
The film largely depends on Cate Blanchett to carry it through, and her great insight is to portray Guerin as someone with a swaggering sense of her own star quality, as someone whose increasing celebrity has perhaps damaged her instinct for self-preservation. Blanchett is not charismatic here so much as playing a woman who self-consciously, even compulsively uses her charisma - coaxing, flirting, joking to keep everyone on her side. What we never get, however, is a real sense of what drove Guerin, or of how much disturbance and self-destructiveness, even callousness, contribute to the make-up of the suicidally fearless investigative reporter; the film presents her tragedy as an inevitable martyrdom. The iconic overhead image of Guerin dead in her car as if in a de luxe coffin, shows the film abandoning all sense of measure, and finally making straight for our heartstrings.Reuse content