We equate a loss of youth with a loss of innocence, but the truth is, we’re never really quite sure what we’re losing. We lose innocence, sure, or as we get older (for life is, one long loss of youth) we lose fitness, but the fact of the matter is that these losses so gulf from the person that we once where that one feels like an entirely new person with a foggy past, not someone who has recently misplaced a possession.
As a result, making a film that attempts to get fully inside the head and perspective of a bunch of teenagers is a nearly impossible task. Most films and novels deal not with youth, but with loss of youth–something we can remember better. The films that manage to succeed best at it are really the ones that succeed best at creating a version of childhood to which we adults can relate–it is at best an accurate evocation, not the real deal.
With this in mind, the best part about David Gordon Green’s George Washington is that it does fail at evoking even a childhood that we adults would readily accept.
The film follows a group of adolescents–just embarking into the ultimate years of loss–and their pointlessly important explorations around their decrepit North Carolina town. They play in various abandoned rail yards, schools and (I believe a mini-golf course. The fascinating decay of these places is really brought to life by consistently excellent cinematography.
The troop of actors are unpublished and about as well-spoken as any group of 13-year-olds, an excellent choice as the slow-paced scenes unfold with wonderful intricacy.
When one of the boys is accidentally killed while playing, the story splits, following various character’s attempts to grapple with the death. The film pays particular attention to George, who becomes a town hero after saving another youth, and then throws himself fully into the role of super hero.
His is the best tale of what this film–and all films on the subject of youth–really get at: not a loss of innocent past, but a gradual and painful dimming of the future. The loss of innocence may indeed come with the first adolescent realization of one’s own finitude. The film really nails this emotion at a few moments in the film, and it is really all it should need. No sense in beating a dead stuffed horse.
It stumbles in two key areas: It falls prey to the temptation to represent southern characters and towns as cartoonish places filled with harmlessly outlandish characters; It also completely ignores race.
Notably, this is the first film I’ve watched that has had more than one token person of color in it–and the film brushes up against race a couple of times. There’s a secretive interracial relationship, a tense scene between a white mother and a black mother, and the name of the film is…George Washington.
But that is about as far as it goes–and the story of what it must be like growing up black in this country is one that, if it has been told, demands to be told in a real way.
The film only deals with it obliquely, which is a nice change from, say, Boyz n the hood, but seems like a striking and unfortunately deliberate missed opportunity.