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GEORGE WASHINGTON
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Candace Evanofski, Donald Holden, Curtis Cotton III, Damien Jawan Lee, Eddie Rouse, Rachel Handy
Director:  David Gordon Green
Audio:  PCM 2.0 Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  90 Minutes
Release Date:  March 1
1, 2014

"I love you so much, sometimes it's hard to breathe."

Film ****

Like an impressionist painting, George Washington is composed with tiny strokes that each look simple enough at one glance, but piece them together and they form an image of complexity and magnitude.  And not even a real image, mind you, but the concept of one...the kind of soft, subtle suggestion that goes past your eyes and your frontal lobe and deep into the recesses of your psyche, where your subconscious mind plays with them over and over again.

This is a film of contradictions that all seem to work.  It's an obviously small budgeted and independently produced film, yet it boldly uses a scope ratio widescreen that offers an instant sense of grandeur and prestige to its humble subject matter.  It's a movie about kids and one unique summer of their lives, yet unlike most coming of age films, the uniqueness doesn't stem from one singular event (one could argue that there is a defining moment in the story, but it's not a moment that propels or defines the plot).  It's not a picture with clearly spelled out life lessons or morals, yet somehow, it teaches more than movies that wear their lectures proudly.

It could very easily be the best and most truthful movie about adolescence since Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows.  Perhaps the best compliment I can afford it is that it changed my perception of the genre itself.  I kept thinking back to one of my favorite Hollywood growing-up offerings, Stand By Me, and it now seems contrived and shallow by comparison.

Writer/director David Gordon Green has constructed a picture that isn't afraid to circumvent a structural plot...after all, how many of our youthful summers really had one?  He's also unafraid to use lingering, contemplative imagery to reflect upon life in a small, southern down that seems to be decaying from industry, and where ominous looking machines push around the refuse of civilization as though they were children playing with sand.

But real children exist in this world.  One is Nasia (Evanofski), who also provides the non-linear narration that expresses her thoughts and impressions more than her memories (as another nice touch, this is a film that doesn't insist on providing an adult perspective on youthful experiences through its narration).  Vernon (Lee) is the oldest of the bunch, who is loyal to his friends but ends up regarding the future with more than a little apprehension.  Sonya (Handy) is the lone white member of the group, whose candor about her lack of emotion seems a little surprising, maybe even to her.  Buddy (Cotton III) is perhaps the group's first sign of approaching puberty.  He regards Nasia with an eye of affection, but can't say the words "I love you".  Deeming him immature, she turns her affections to George (Holden), a young dreamer whose skull never fused properly, leaving his brain vulnerable to even wetness.

Nasia's impressions of George make up most of the heart of the story.  "My friend George said that he would live to be a hundred years old," she muses.  "He said he'd be the president of the United States...everybody thought he was crazy but me."  George is something of a dreamer in a summer that feels like it just might be the last one for such dreams.

The film mostly follows these kids as they talk and play in their hot and arid landscape.  They live in the kind of town that almost feels rural, but the ever present signs of industry frame every scene.  "You can't see the stars for the smoke," one of the adults muse.  Some of the grownups seem just as listless as the kids...when the two talk, it isn't one-sided.  Age doesn't always provide wisdom, and as we all now know, the answers just don't appear to us out of thin air.

With a few broad strokes, we get impressions and images of their lives.  George, for example, lives with his aunt and uncle.  Why?  We don't get the whole story, but there is a revealing scene late in the picture where George visits his empty-staring, silent father in prison.  "I didn't believe you before," he tells his dad, "but I believe you now."  What's he talking about?

Whatever it is, we understand where the feeling is coming from, and that's the most important aspect.  As mentioned, there is a kind of centralized, surprising event at the heart of the picture, but not as surprising as what comes after it.  We get so used to formulas in these kind of movies that we expect the one event to define and dictate the remainder of the story...yet it doesn't.  Like ripples in a pond, the effects of the event continue to reverberate throughout the movie, but it doesn't alter the course of the contents.

Because the picture is so unconventional, it requires our own efforts after the credits roll.  What have we seen?  It's not easy to spell out.  What's the story?  You can't really describe it.  How do we feel?  That's probably the hardest...as mentioned, the imagery in the film goes beyond our rational mind and into our instincts, which makes it harder to reason out our reactions.  We may love it, or we may hate it...that's easy.  Expressing why?  That takes a bit more thought and soul searching.

Video ****

The cinematography in George Washington is beautiful, and this quality high definition transfer from Criterion preserves it perfectly.  From the hot saturated colors of the days to the eerily cool tones of night, David Gordon Green paints his sketches with an eye for detail.  The sharp and well defined images craft his vision of life in this town...the waste and debris is almost a character itself...and all render with clarity and integrity.  There is no bleeding, no grain, no distortion, and no evident compression.  This is a remarkable looking indie movie, and Criterion does it full out justice here.

Audio ****

My expectations of the audio track were wrong.  I assumed that a simple, dialogue driven movie wouldn't have an overly impressive soundtrack, nor did I think I'd give a four star rating to a simple stereo surround mix.  I was wrong on both counts.  Sounds are very important in the film, from the musical score whose long singular notes create a layer of intensity, to the noises and sounds of the small town life.  The rear stage, those mono, is actually harnessed and used better than some 5.1 mixes I've heard over the years.  Its an open, ambient soundtrack that keeps you in the center of the events.  Stereo panning effects are subtle and clean on the front stage, and there's even some surprising moments of low frequency that had me checking to see if there was a signal coming from my subwoofer.  There wasn't, but that's indicative of the quality of this track.  Very high marks.

Features ****

This Blu-ray boasts an impressive collection of extras, beginning with a commentary track by David Gordon Green, director of photography Tim Orr, and actor Paul Schneider.  They talk about their influences and ideas...particularly noteworthy is Green's flexibility.  Not everything in the movie was according to original plan, but he instinctually crafted some new and/or different scenes based on his actors' dynamics.  Some of these are the film's most memorable. 

There are also three short films, two made by Green as a film student.  The first, Pleasant Grove, was shot on video and was a precursor to George Washington.  You can watch this with or without his commentary track.  The second, Physical Pinball, was shot on film and features Candace Evanofski.  A third film is A Day With the Boys, a 1969 movie by Clu Gulager, which Green and Orr mention as a major influence.

Rounding out is a cast reunion video (a real treat), a Charlie Rose interview with Green (not the most exciting thing in the world, but it contains some good candid conversation), one deleted scene with or without Green's commentary, and the original trailer.

Summary:

George Washington is an impressive movie on an equally impressive Blu-ray.  I can't promise you that you'll like the film, but I still wholeheartedly recommend it because, like it or not, at least you won't have seen anything quite like it before.

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