George Washington is a meandering, moody, and hypnotic look at a group of black children, ages 9 to 14, during one summer in North Carolina. This was my second viewing and it remained a deeply satisfying experience. Though at times self-conscious, George Washington brings to mind Terence Malick's Days of Heaven with its voice-over narration, languid, dreamy tone, and gorgeous cinematography.
The youngsters are shown talking and playing aimlessly among the squalid junkyards and abandoned buildings of their neighborhood. They do not talk much about their hopes for the future but focus on their families and their girl friends and boy friends. The dialogue is partly improvised and, like Days of Heaven, allows the characters to speak in a manner that is slightly more poetic and contemplative than the average teenager.
The narrator, Nasia (Candace Evanofski), is a 12-year-old who has just broken up with her 13-year-old boyfriend Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) because, in her view, he's too young and immature. She's more attracted to Buddy's friend George (Donald Holden), a quiet and serious boy who always wears a helmet to protect his soft skull. They hang out with their friends, a mismatched pair of amateur car thieves named Vernon (Damian Jewan Lee) and Sonya (Rachael Handy), and also with Rico (Paul Schneider), a local railroad worker. Buddy shares his sadness with Rico who comforts him with his own story of lost love.
When an unexpected tragedy occurs, each of them must look closer at themselves and struggle to make an emotional connection with the events. They come to their realizations at different moments throughout the film and slowly begin to change in different ways. George, for one, after saving a drowning boy in a swimming pool becomes a neighborhood hero. Those realizations, however, do not provide an instantaneous fix and Green does not provide a forced happy ending.
Green has said, "One of the reasons I made this movie is because movies talk down to kids, put them as a cute little kid with a box of cereal and a witty joke," says Green. "You watch movies like Kindergarten Cop and it's like, 'Oh, a kid said something about sex. Isn't that funny?' It's just annoying and it makes me sad for their parents."
George Washington presents a view of teens that is not condescending but shows each character as a person of dignity and worth. It uniquely captures the confusion of adolescence, the need to belong, to believe life is or can be important, and the universal longing for love. Green has looked into the squalor and found beauty. Like a poem of Walt Whitman, he has expressed the divine in the commonplace.