in Criterion Month

George Washington (2000)

I dare you to find a director with a weirder body of work than David Gordon Green. Not more diverse or worse, just weirder. Bursting onto the scene in the early ‘00s, Green looked like the heir apparent to Terrence Malick. The southern gothic settings and stoic narration of his early films had all the makings of the next great American auteur. Then Pineapple Express happened. Okay, maybe Green’s just trying to test the market. Make a film that can result in actual box office dollars instead of pinching pennies from arthouse cinemas. Then Your Highness happens. Okay, maybe he had such a fun time he wanted to give it one more go. Then The Sitter happened… He’s dead, Jim. So let’s bypass all the gloom and doom for now and go back to a simpler time. The time of Washington.

George Washington is a coming-of-age story set off the beaten trail in small-town North Carolina. The film opens with narration from a preteen girl named Nasia (Candace Evanofski) talking about her friend George (Donald Holden). Nasia says things like “My friend George said that he was gonna live to be 100 years old. He said that he was going to be the president of the United States.” Nadia acts as if there is an aura of mystique around her friend George. Others think he’s stupid.

The truth is George is just another kid living in a depressed rural town. One exception is that George was born with a partially formed skull meaning even the slightest bump on the head could kill him. He also goes to great lengths to keep his head dry as water can soak into his head and attack his brain. But aside from that he’s just another kid trying to hang on to his last thread of childhood before the reality of life comes crashing down. And crashing down it does. I don’t want to spoil it but after a tragic occurrence, of which George is responsible, we watch as his innocence dies.

Apart from the tragic event at the film’s midpoint, the story free to roam as it pleases. A majority of the scenes are kids hanging out and talking. Nasia is interested in relationships and moving on from her immature boyfriend Vernon (Damian Jewan Lee), George cares for a dirty and diseased dog he feeds gummy bears and cereal. Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) and Sonya (Rachael Handy) like to get into mischief which also results in some less than desirable results.

The only adults who have a real presence in the story are Eddie Rouse as George’s irritable Uncle Damascus, complaining about his job and George’s filthy dog and blue-collar labor worker Paul Schneider as Rico Rice who tries to make the best of living in a dead town by finding love and trying to bond with the neighborhood kids. The interactions are natural and sweet but there’s always a hint of sadness.

I hate it when people say things like this but I’ll say it, “The location in this film is like another character.” Which is a cliche but it’s true in this film. Shot around the Winston-Salem area of NC, the rustic setting adds so much personality. The town is as ugly as it beautiful and compliments its scenes of joy just as well as it adds to its scenes of sorrow.

George Washington is contemplative but not preachy, laid but back weighty in theme. It’s a simple film beautifully told by an inspired filmmaker. Whether or not that filmmaker will ever recapture that inspiration is yet to be seen. I do know David Gordon Green’s next film will again be filmed in North Carolina. Though that film is Halloween. Who knows. Maybe Halloween will be the most thoughtful coming-of-age film since George Washington.