George Washington (12)

Meanwhile, in America's backyard
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The Independent Culture

George Washington, the first feature by young American director David Gordon Green, is a small film that thinks big – poetically big. Its bold stylistic amplitude is so at odds with the ostensible smallness of its subject – childhood in a drab, mouldering North Carolina town – that the overall effect is of sheer paradox. This is a low-budget, low-incident film, but Green and his collaborators (notably, a cast of unknowns in their teens or younger, and the astonishing cinematographer Tim Orr) have created a world that is universes apart from the usual territory of American independent cinema.

Green's principal characters are a group of children – mostly in their early teens, and mostly black – who hang around the railway yards and burnt-out school buildings of their home town. Mostly, they do what children do – fantasise, philosophise, enjoy good-natured skirmishes with adults and, as one of the girls puts it in her voice-over, "try to find clues to all the mysteries and mistakes God had made". At first, this looks genuinely like a "film about nothing". The pre-credit sequence is a disconnected sequence of moments and images: two children have a glum end-of-courtship conversation; kids vault in slow motion over a wall; a crack of daylight through a barn door resembles a Barnett Newman zip painting. Green's world is prosaic, yet everything in it tends to abstraction, and everything is steeped in the elusive significance of childhood.

Superficially, George Washington is one of those "our gang" coming-of-age stories about children whose unity and innocence are wrenched apart by trauma. What the catastrophe is here, I won't reveal, but it comes as a shock, especially since it is not the one we are led to expect. Totally at ease with the camera, the children are more pensive and downbeat, not to mention eccentrically exuberant, than American screen kids are ever allowed to be. There's wry Nasia (Candace Evanofski), already sceptical and witty about the woes and protocols of romancing; saturnine, vulnerable loner George (Donald Holden), harbouring secret dreams of greatness; and solemn, diminutive white girl Sonya (Rachael Handy), emotionally the most disadvantaged of all, and devoured by numb self-reproach.

Green hardly idealises childhood. In many ways, his world is hellish, haunted by death, fear and frustration. Yet in other ways, it seems a kind of utopia, untouched by racial difference: black and white live, play, swim and date together, something you're just not used to seeing in American film. Only occasionally does Green wander into folksiness, but he's good at defusing sentiment. Two women embrace: the nephew of one has saved the other's son from drowning. But just when a Hollywood film would seal the gesture with heart-tugging music, Green cuts away to two raucous girls laughing about their first kisses.

The tone is sometimes out-and-out surreal without ever leaving the everyday: a small boy declaims on a abandoned stage, wearing a huge rubber crocodile head. Only near the end does the film veer towards more a commonplace version of the American bizarre, like the Uncle Sam from the parade who stops by for a shave at the town barber shop. But George Washington is impressionistic more often than surreal, selecting details and making them huge and mysterious: a dried-out snake rasping its last, or a hat on fire. Shooting in Scope by available light, Tim Orr's photography opens out this narrow world into a desert where even the sky is burnt and rusted. This unusually mannered film may aestheticise everything it sees, but it does so through the children's eyes, so that finally there's little clear distinction between the infinitely strange and the doggedly ordinary.

There is a distinctly literary smack to the script, an echo of Southern writers such as William Faulkner and Carson McCullers in the way it lingers on the resonance of events rather than the events themselves. Language too is memorably bent out of its ordinary shape. George unreels a litany of personal heroes – "The man who invented the steam shovel; Chubby Checker; The Untouchables; Great Wall of China" – and in a wonderful visual gag, a newspaper headline is transformed into Dada poetry. Visually and verbally, the film is less narrative than musical in shape, with a distinctively unsettling soundtrack to match. The sound mix reverberates right inside your head at certain moments, and the score, which ranges from humming abstraction to shambling backyard rock, rarely matches the images according to conventional film-music syntax.

It's hard to know in the end how much this is a political film, as the title suggests. It is certainly democratic in the way it cares about its cast and its characters, treating children and adults alike as equally worthy of our fascination: it's a world away from the small-town freakshow approach of Harmony Korine's gloating, superficially comparable Gummo. Despite all the American imagery (even a pin-up portrait of George Bush Snr) and childhood images of stars-and-stripes heroism, the film seems to occupy its own realm of abstraction in which direct political meanings are suspended. Instead, a sort of parallel America is created here, the very existence of which seems like a dissident gesture given the overwhelming banality of America's current cinematic imagination. One of the best, certainly one of the strangest, films ever made about childhood, George Washington turns the commonplaces of the American Dream into an enigmatic American reverie.