Love among the ruins

Uneven George Washington examines secret world of kids

Set in the train yards, vacant lots, abandoned buildings and other peripheral places adults ignore and children congregate, George Washington offers a sentimental, lyrical picture of a world ruled by the young. The children wander the town's deserted streets, ponder their existence, offer heartfelt musings, steal cars, avoid toxic home lives and chew the fat with a group of young men who do some indecipherable work at the local rail yards.

There's a tiny, practically mute blond girl, Sonya (Rachael Handy), her husky pal Vernon (Damian Jewan Lee), Nasia (Candace Evanofski) and the two boys, Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) and George (Donald Holden), at opposite ends of Nasia's romantic attention.

The film has a molasses-slow exegesis attributable, depending upon your view, to its Southern pedigree (a North Carolina setting and a Texas director), or the less charming deficiencies of 25-year-old, first-time director David Gordon Green's storytelling technique. George Washington is evidence of a promising but still raw talent.

Like the film it immediately calls to mind, Harmony Korine's 1997 Gummo, George Washington opens with a child's voice-over narration. The introduction to this world apart is Nasia, a precocious, intense, poised teenager who's just dumped the handsome 13-year-old Buddy West and taken up with the far more complicated and heroically-flawed 12-year-old George, a silent, thoughtful kid whose handicap is an insufficiently fused skull. You get the feeling this very poetic infirmity struck Green as a pretty meaningful literary device, though like other portents and symbols in George Washington, it tends not to add up to much, subtextually speaking.

In place of Gummo's Wal-Mart-verité of bowling alleys and heavy metal, George Washington boasts ethereal, theatrical settings (including one decrepit amphitheater), where peeling paint and rusted-out metal give the film the antiqued, moldering ambiance of Athens filmmaker James Herbert's humid teen raptures. That shabby-chic squalor is just one of the aspects of George Washington that make it an imperfect but unique first effort. The children of George Washington prove equal to their theatrical habitat, with their confessional, flowery prose reeking of screenwriter Green's leaky pen. Green leaves his authorial presence all over the film, though beneath the often precious phrasing one senses his earnest desire to convey how epic and urgent events can feel to a child.

And Green can, at times, show a real grasp of not only the unconscious poetry in a child's experience — like the jilted Buddy who moans to a friend, "she had this glaze in her eyes ... just made me tingle all over" — but also the exaggerated, loony verbal inventions of the Southern brain, as when Vernon tries to persuade Nasia not to take up with George. "George is stupid," he chides. "His skull ain't even fused together. He don't take baths."

George Washington has some of the classic earmarks of a distinctive debut effort; it boasts an original, imaginative story centered on black children, who films rarely treat with the dignity and sense of romance Green imbues them with. That the film centers around two African-American boys who are presented as absolute equals by their white neighbors with nary a discussion of race is one of George Washington's most unique and admirable features. There's a hint of the marvelous in George Washington, a rhapsodic, tender quality that can sweep you up in its rendering of the intensity and angst of the adolescent heart and mind. And the degree to which this romantic effusiveness is due to cinematographer Tim Orr is illustrated by the fact that his name appears alongside Green's in the credits.

But the film also has its fair share of defects, like some wooden perfor- mances and a plot that shifts joltingly at one point from a meandering slice-of- life with the sudden introduction of a grandiose, operatic tragedy. Green tends to offer just as many forced, embarrassing moments as he does flashes of insight. The fireworks display that ends the film sums up this conflict nicely — a beautiful, enthralling spectacle that can neverthe- less leave you feeling a little empty in the end.??