Made for just $42,000, David Gordon Green’s debut was released to critical acclaim fifteen years ago, and of the films of his I’ve seen it’s still the most affecting and fresh, even though its magic hour indie styling has been oft-imitated since. It’s relentlessly nostalgic in its depiction of the summer of a group of friends in North Carolina, partly because cinematographer Tim Orr creates a world where the sun seems to be permanently setting, partly through the lack of signifiers that allow us to accurately guess the year, and partly because it focuses on young teenagers whose collective innocence is subtly revealed despite their insistence on trying to act like adults. We’re supposed to watch it and think ‘that’s how summers used to be’, though I expect it’s easier to identify with the surroundings and the experiences of the characters if you’ve grown up in America, as opposed to the north of England, like I did. Green and Orr takes their visual cues from the floatier end of Terrence Malick’s work, though the film also references more accessible movies, such as Stand By Me. Although it’s nowhere near as conventional and much less immediate than Rob Reiner’s film, George Washington eventually ends up making similar points: when you’re 13 or 14 you start to become an adult and your relationships with peers change; life and friendships suddenly seem less certain; and long summers are ultimately defined by a few short, standout incidents. Here, as in Stand By Me, one of those incidents is the death of a teenage boy, and in both films a dead body is unceremoniously dumped in the woods, inviting discovery. For George Richardson (Donald Holden) and the other children the summer ought to be dominated by this death, but as it turns out that’s not the case; it becomes just another incident for the memory banks, along with the time George became a hero for saving a drowning kid, or the time a car crashed in the main street, or the fact that Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) was dumped by Nasia (Candace Evanofski). (And, in keeping with this, if you look at Stand By Me the death of Ray Brower and the discovery of his body is far less important and life-changing for the characters than the journey they make to find him.)
If the acting by adults here is a little ropey at times – understandable given the budget – then it’s more than made up for by the younger cast members, who deliver five impressive, naturalistic performances between them. The most memorable character is George, renamed for the purposes of the President-referencing title, whose vulnerability is emphasized by his weakened skull, which requires him to wear a protective helmet; when he puts this on along with his basketball kit and fixes a cape on his shoulders, the quiet, reserved George suddenly looks like a small town superhero. Green’s hopeful film seems to suggest that this is a point in a child’s life when they could go on to be anything. It ends with the same character dressed up in a suit for an official photo in front of the Stars & Stripes, as the director ruminates on the idea that one day America may even have a black President. Imagine that.
Directed by: David Gordon Green.
Written by: David Gordon Green.
Starring: Candace Evanofski, Donald Holden, Damien Jewan Lee, Curtis Cotton III, Rachael Handy, Eddie Rouse.
Cinematography: Tim Orr.
Editing: Steven Gonzales, Zene Baker.
Music: Michael Winnen, David Lingo.
Running Time: 86 minutes.