“He just wanted greatness.” That’s how Nasia (Candace Evaofski) describes her friend George (Donald Holden) in David Gordon Greene’s George Washington. The same could be said for the wunderkind director himself, just 25 when he made the ambitious, lyrical film. George Washington depicts one summer in the lives of impoverished youths in a decayed North Carolina town. Tragedy and triumph bookend the season and catapult the protagonists into complicated, compromised adulthood.
Greene flaunts his influences. The film is uncannily reminiscent of Terrance Malick’s masterful Days of Heaven. This means lush cinematography (by Tim Orr) of pastoral landscapes threatened by (and dependent on) modern industrialism. Evaofski’s stirring voiceover narration, packed with plainspoken childhood wisdom (“The grown-ups in my town, they were never kids like me and my friends. They had worked in wars and build machines.”) also recalls Malick. But unlike Malick’s seemingly effortless beauties, Greene’s film, while an ascetic delight, occasionally falters under the weight of its artistic flourishes.
Editors Steven Gonzales and Zene Baker’s provide an elliptical structure that compliments the film’s dreamy tone, but negates Greene’s naturalistic dialogue and simple plot. Moments of ethereal grace—George visiting his friend’s burial place (“No one will bother you here”), Nasia telling George, “I hope you live forever” — rub against stalled narrative asides and Orr’s overdependence on slow-motion.
George Washington suggests a literary horror film. Characters are challenged by their own mortality. “I’m not a very good person. I didn’t feel anything,” says Sonya (Rachael Hardy) after witnessing a friend’s death. Viewers will not say the same of Green’s fitfully transcendent debut. Thankfully, the young director is unlikely to face his own mortality any time soon.