All the Real Girls (United States, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

All the Real Girls is an anti-Hollywood romance; a tonic for all those weary of the usual cinematic overglamorization of love. Anchored deep in the bowels of reality, this movie proves that love can be just as affecting and effectively realized when it is between two well-drawn, well-grounded characters as when it occurs in the fantasy realm inhabited by 90% of the romances (whether dramas or comedies) available on the market. All the Real Girls is slow moving and low key, and, when the final credits roll, you feel like you have spent nearly two hours in the company of a few real people, not constructs of a writer's imagination.

The film opens with a quiet scene between Noel (Zooey Deschanel) and Paul (Paul Schneider), who are in the opening stages of a relationship. She asks him why he hasn't tried to kiss her, and he replies that he wants to be able to answer truthfully that hasn't to her brother and his best friend, Tip (Shea Whigham), if the question arises. The issue is that Tip knows Paul's reputation for having meaningless sex with any willing girl, and he doesn't want his baby sister, newly returned home from boarding school, to become another notch in Paul's belt. However, that doesn't stop Noel and Paul's relationship from progressing through the expected states, Paul from growing up and learning what it means to love someone, and Noel from understanding the pitfalls of sex.

Writer/director David Gordon Green, whose previous feature was the little-seen indie George Washington, has fashioned a character-driven piece that rejects melodrama in favor of allowing the actions and reactions of his protagonists to guide the narrative. Thus, many of the things we would expect to see in a romantic drama are absent. For example, although one could argue that there are "romantic complications," they are more of the kind that would happen in the average post-high schooler's life than in that of a movie character. And the friendship between Paul and Tip, which is tested by Paul's clandestine amour with Noel, takes a reasonable and believable course. Green likes and understands these characters, and knows the kind of small town they inhabit, and this comes across to the viewers.

One key to Green's approach is to keep things simple. In an era when filmmakers – even those working on a shoestring budget – have become enamored with flashiness and quick cuts, Green bucks the trend by employing a documentary-like approach. This unforced style allows us to concentrate on the characters without becoming distracted by camera movements or an editor's choices. That puts a burden upon the actors, which, for the most part, they are capable of absorbing.

As the sexually curious Noel, Zooey Deschanel is mesmerizing. With expressive features and captivating eyes, she proves more than capable of succeeding in a lead role. (Previously, she was used as a supporting performer in movies like Almost Famous and The Good Girl.) Deschanel alternately shows strength and vulnerability, the kind of variation one expects to see in a teenage girl. Her co-star, Paul Schneider, isn't as gifted, and there are times when an expression, action, or line of dialogue rings false. More importantly, however, there is chemistry between the actors, and, on those occasions when Schneider stumbles, Deschanel is usually on hand to carry the load on her own. Capable support is provided by Shea Whigham and Patricia Clarkson as Paul's mother.

Aside from a protracted conclusion, in which Green seems a little uncertain precisely how he wants to wrap things up, there are few notable flaws. All the Real Girls is a love story for those who don't like Hollywood love stories. It never forces itself upon viewers and steers clear of anything that remotely resembles manipulation. This is a low-profile gem that will endear itself to anyone who appreciates what Green is trying to do.

All the Real Girls (United States, 2003)

Director: David Gordon Green
Cast: Zooey Deschanel, Paul Schneider, Patricia Clarkson, Shea Whigham
Screenplay: David Gordon Green
Cinematography: Tim Orr
Music: Michael Linnen, David Wingo
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 2003-02-28
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1