The spirit of Terence Malick informs every frame of David Gordon Green’s film, from the hazy, shimmering photography to the Southern-accented voice-overs and languid, unhurried pacing. Unlike many of today’s independent directors, Green opts not for a hand-held digital look, but anamorphic 35-millimetre camerwork, creating a highly accomplished debut that belies the relative experience of the director and cast.
It’s a snapshot of life in a rural working class community in deep Carolina, centred around a group of children. George is the quiet, intelligent 13-year-old boy with a fragile skull condition that requires him to wear a football helmet at all times. He lives with his permanently angry uncle Damascus and his aunt, and spends the summer days with friends Buddy, Sonny and Vernon, hanging out in the woodland hollows and by the rail tracks. Tragedy strikes when Buddy slips on a bathroom floor whilst playing and is killed immediately. Panicked and convinced it is their fault, the kids hide the body and try to continue with their summer as if nothing has happened.
While Buddy’s death is easily the most ‘dramatic’ thing to happen here, it isn’t treated as the film’s narrative centre. We never really see how Buddy’s disappearance and the eventual discovery of his body affects the adults in the community, and the death impacts on the kids in different ways. The older Vernon is convinced he will go to prison and that this is just the latest mistake in a life full of wrong-turns and dead-ends, and makes the (bad) decision to steal a car and run away with the equally terrified Sonya. George on the other hand barely seems to acknowledge the death, but begins wearing a home-made superhero costume and performing random acts of kindness, even risking his life to save a drowning boy.
Green draws some strong, believable performances from both his young cast and the adult actors, keeping the dialogue sparse, and like Terence Malick, using a sometimes dreamlike narration. It’s an undeniably moving film, but much of its emotional power derives from Tim Orr’s beautiful cinematography and Michael Linnen and David Wingo’s haunting score rather than the actual events of the narrative, from which Green remains somewhat detached. Nevertheless, this is a stylish movie that confidently filters childhood experiences through adult eyes without ever pulling the obvious manipulative tricks common with this type of filmmaking.
American indie director with a strong visual sense. Film school graduate Green made a big impression with his debut film, the powerful drama George Washington, while 2003's All the Real Girls was similarly well-received. An unexpected change of pace appeared when he directed stoner comedy Pineapple Express, the biggest success of his career to that point, following it up with the widely reviled Your Highness. In contrast, the acclaimed Joe represented a return to his indie drama roots.