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With: Cadance Evanofski, Donald Holden, Damien Jewan Lee, Curtis Cotton III, Rachael Handy, Paul Schneider, Eddie Rouse
Written by: David Gordon Green
Directed by: David Gordon Green
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 90
Date: 02/01/2000

George Washington (2000)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

President of the Junkyard

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Directed by 24 year-old David Gordon Green, George Washington gives Independent Film a good name again. Instead of the usual coming-of-age story or Tarantino-esque crime film, Green delivers a film that feels truly unusual, refreshing, and ultimately affecting.

The film opens on a pair of disgustingly beat-up Chuck Taylor tennies balancing on a wooden fence. The shot immediately strikes us with its amazing use of 'Scope and color. This is a film as brilliantly aware of its empty spaces as it is its characters.

George Washington has little to do with the Father of Our Country, but everything to do with a 13 year-old black boy named George Richardson (Donald Holden) who hopes (against hope) to be president someday. Though the film is nearly plotless, it centers around three distinct episodes that could easily be named; George's Dog, George's Dead Friend, and George Saves a Life. George suffers a strange condition in which his skull has a soft spot like a baby's. As a result, he must wear a plastic helmet and never get his head wet.

George has three friends, Buddy (Curtis Cotton III), whose 12 year-old girlfriend has just dumped him, Vernon (Damien Jewan Lee) experiencing a growth-spurt making him nearly twice the size of the others, and Sonya (Rachael Handy), a little white blonde girl who does not physically fit in with her male black friends, but identifies perfectly with their sense of boredom and hopelessness. The film is narrated by Buddy's ex-girlfriend, Nasia (Candace Evanofski) who now prefers George.

The characters roam an unnamed rural Southern town filled with rusting remains of forgotten facilities and bits of various junk, from busted television sets to oil barrels, with grass and weeds growing around their edges. A group of white adults work at a job that seems to entail picking up scrap metal and moving it to another location. Thus the film implies, without actually saying anything or beating us over the head, that adults are responsible for the sad state of the world.

The film seems to be about boredom and expectations. Buddy is concerned with the loss of his girlfriend, and he ruminates poetically about the hole she has in his life. After saving a young boy from drowning in a swimming pool, George contemplates life as a hero, going so far as to don a cape and a wrestling uniform and directing traffic. When he sees a man playing Uncle Sam in the Fourth of July parade, he tells him "you were the best part." The oddly-paired Vernon and Sonya attempt to leave the small town in a stolen car, looking for a brighter future elsewhere.

Nearly every review of George Washington so far has compared the film as a cross between Harmony Korine's Gummo (1997) and Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978), both great films that use mood and style over story and character as George Washington does. But Days of Heaven emphasized beauty and Gummo focuses on ugliness, while George Washington falls somewhere in between. It's a movie that attempts to find beauty in a world that all but denies it.

But, yes, there are moments of undeniable beauty here, and it's wonderful to see a film dedicated to looking for it instead of simply providing close-ups of aerobicized starlets, bashing us over the head with messages, or insulting us with the same old plot twists. George Washington allows us to look into a few lazy, heavy summer days and make what we will out of it. The film is not completely focused or agile, but it marks the debut of a most promising talent.

The Criterion Collection released the 2002 DVD, and now they have bestowed upon us a 2014 Blu-ray/DVD combo set. It looks like the extras are about the same: a low-key commentary track by Green, Orr, and Schneider; a deleted scene; two short films by Green; a 1969 short film by Clu Gulager; a Charlie Rose interview; and a "cast reunion" from 2001. The film has been restored in high-definition digital -- the image is rich and dreamy -- with a 2.0 surround DTS-HD master audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray. The notorious film critic Armond White's 2002 essay is in the liner notes booklet, as well as a statement from Green.

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