George Washington opens on a close-up of a boy's sneakered feet carefully maneuvering along a rusted beam. Dusted in sunlight, it's a quintessential image of American boyhood, evoking freedom as well as risk. He may be a kid killing time, testing his balance on a fence. Or a wanderer on a train track, both eyes focused on a destination far away from home. George Washington doesn't give us time to decide. The boy skips off the end of the beam, and before we can see what happens, director David Gordon Green cuts away. Did the boy land safely? Or did he tumble to the ground? Did he hop right up again, sturdy and hopeful, sure in his body and his heart that he can't really be hurt? Or did he learn a small, harsh lesson, the first of many?
By the time Green's remarkable debut film is over, we've been swept along by a stream of haunting, dreamlike images: a boy in an alligator mask reciting Bible passages in a desecrated school gymnasium; a spindly redhead in a neck brace, floating face down in a swimming pool; a black boy dressed as a superhero, his homemade white cape flapping in the wind while he directs traffic. Only 25, the director arrives like a bolt from the blue, creating one of the year's richest and most mystifying moviegoing experiences. Made with a multiracial cast of amateur actors, most of them children, George Washington unfolds with the lazy rhythms of a nearly mythical southern childhood. Not an ounce of aggression or a hint of cheap cynicism is on display. Green's 11- and 12-year-olds philosophize about sin and redemption, but they never curse. They roughhouse and they hurt one another, but they don't talk trash. They putter around dilapidated factories and empty playgrounds, looking to make meaning out of their own aimlessness. But theirs is a world devoid of video games, hip-hop culture, or designer label T-shirts.
Like a young Terence Malick, who created physically ravishing otherworlds in Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, Green has fashioned his own universe out of the raw materials of our own. Tim Orr's masterly wide-screen cinematography burnishes the hidden corners of small-town North Carolina, spinning gold from rust. Amid the junkyards and empty lots, Green locates a form of salvation. In the hopes of boys and girls who shouldn't have much hope at all, he finds a kind of American beauty.
No American president appears as a character in George Washington. Instead, there's George Richardson (Donald Holden), a sullen boy usually seen wearing a football helmet to protect a soft spot in his skull. Like most of the kids in the film, George is on the hazardous cusp between childhood and adulthood. He's gentle with stray animals, including the mangy dog his embittered uncle would love to banish from their house. He isn't much of a communicator, but there's a solidity to the boy that attracts Nasia (Candace Evanofski), a girl poised and elegant beyond her years. As the film opens, she decides to commit herself to George instead of his scrawny pal Buddy (Curtis Cotton III). Laconic to the core, neither boy seems especially affected by Nasia's shift in affections. But the move gets the three of them talking and implicates their friends Vernon (Damien Jewan Lee) and Sonya (Rachael Handy), too. In wonderfully naturalistic exchanges that Green scripted from the actors' own experiences, the characters trade poignant stories about their mothers and fathers, seen and unseen, as well as their hopes for the future. "The grown-ups in my town, they were never kids like me and my friends," Nasia observes in voice-over, as Green's camera roams over the fields and rails that map their landscape. "They had worked in wars and built machines. It was hard for them to find their peace." Living on their own time, the kids "try to find clues to all of the mysteries and mistakes that God had made."
This sweetly spiritual, questing tone rubs up against the grittier truths of the ordinary adult world. At times Green plays the contrast for laughs, as when a gang of railroad workers argues about the nutritional value of what's inside their lunch pails. Yet the hint of something darker is never far away, especially in the character of George's uncle, Damascus (Eddie Rouse), whose hand seems always to be tightly clutching an ax.
Even in a rural setting, a film that focuses on young, black, hemmed-in characters arrives with associations to the ghetto and its perils. Viewers' expectations actually help to give George Washington's meandering story shape, though Green ends up confounding the predictable scenarios. Tragedy strikes, but not where or when it's expected. You know the film's tone has changed when you revisit one of the well-behaved main characters and he's smoking a cigarette. The aftermath of a violent accident casts a potentially terrifying shadow over these young lives, but they emerge in the light. Baptism is a repeated motif in George Washington; key scenes happen around a swimming pool, puddles are both welcomed and feared, and George himself chooses to be doused even though it could cause swelling in his skull. At the film's conclusion, George is born again--not as a Christian exactly, but as a secular Christ: a superhero in wrestling togs, a cape, and a fur hat. He helps old ladies safely cross the street, and he tests fire alarms and safety procedures to make sure escape is possible. He even has the power to predict the future.
More specifically, he's an American hero, a good and gifted man in a long line of good and gifted men that goes back to George Washington himself. How bold a gesture in these cynical times for Green to grant this George his dearest wish: the chance to march in a Fourth of July parade and to meet one of his own heroes, Uncle Sam. George pays his respects in a barbershop, as Uncle Sam is getting a haircut.
James Gillespie, the poker-faced boy at the center of Lynne Ramsay's grimly poetic Ratcatcher, struggles for transcendence, too, but his desire is largely unexpressed, his possibilities far more limited. Set during a Glasgow garbage collector's strike in the 1970s, Ratcatcher finds tiny moments of grace in an otherwise hopeless environment. James (William Eadie) and his friends goof around, nearly oblivious to the mountains of greasy, black garbage bags that sit in the middle of their apartment complex. The nearby canal, sewage-filled yet fascinating, proves treacherous when, in the film's opening scenes, a friend of James's drowns there after the two boys' play turns aggressive. Guilt sits hard on the survivor's tiny shoulders, yet James confesses to no one. His friendship with Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen), a needy older girl, provides just so much solace. Only accidentally, during a bus ride out of town, does James find his place of peace: a half-built suburban development that opens onto a field that seems to go on forever. There he can ramble at will. But home, his damaged family, his troubled friends, and his secret are never far away.
Ramsay's imagery is unforgettable. A boy twists himself inside the gauzy lace curtains hanging from the window of his dreary flat. With a shard of glass, a small hand carves marks into a shiny pair of new shoes. A pink-eyed mouse flies away from the Glasgow squalor, tethered to a birthday balloon. James's suburban journey is a tour de force; set to the plaintive strains of Nick Drake's "Cello Song," a beautiful new world unfolds to the boy from his seat at the top of a double-decker bus. Without a word being spoken, the film fleetingly blesses the child, offering him colors and textures he can't see or feel at home. Pages of script could never speak so eloquently. Pure cinema doesn't get any better.
Like George Washington, Ratcatcher is obsessed with ruins, with water, with redemption. Yet especially in contrast to Green's hopefulness, Ramsay's vision feels bleak and punishing. So too, in surprising ways, does the Hollywood tear-jerker Pay It Forward, a film miles away in budget and pretension, yet similarly concerned with a boy's effort to make the world right. Both Pay It Forward and George Washington conclude with child heroes being interviewed on television. But whereas Pay It Forward wants to ratchet up the bitter irony (Haley Joel Osment's character has been senselessly killed on the very day the interview airs), George Washington opts for a gentler reckoning. In a film where the mass media seem so noticeably absent, the brief appearance of a television crew is especially disturbing late in the story. First pinned in a corner, George is later asked to share with the unseen broadcast viewer his definition of heroism. "A hero," he announces, "should be wise, strong, and very talented. They should also have a list of dangerous and poisonous things. I'm a hero because I like to save people's lives, stuff like that."
Sometimes I smile and laugh when I think about all the great things that you're gonna do," Nasia tells George in the montage that concludes and sums up what's wonderful about George Washington. "I hope you live forever." Then we get another glimpse of a boy and a rusted beam, echoing the first, this time in a long shot. It's George, in his red-white-and-blue hero's ensemble, wandering by the railroad tracks. He takes a little skip and lands safely. Then he hops up, onto a higher beam, and continues on his way to save the world. ¤