All the Real Girls is a film of tender romance, one that is rarely seen in the movies. It has little plot, being approached much more like a documentary than your normal drama. Much of it appears to be improvised, and I would almost believe that the relationship between the two leads was real instead of scripted, based on their chemistry and the way that each scene plays out. You stop becoming aware that you’re watching a movie. You forget that the camera is showing you these events and that you’re not just standing there, watching these people go about their lives.
The cause of all the drama is a man named Paul (Paul Schneider), a former womanizer who wants to start turning his life around. He meets Noel (Zooey Deschanel) before our film even begins, and in the very first scene we see them together, he refuses to kiss her on the lips. Why? Because he’s afraid. Afraid that he’d have to explain himself, and possibly because he doesn’t want his past tendencies to take over. She, in her first real relationship, has no clue what she’s doing.
However, because she trusts him intimately — each one is clearly in love with the other; we can see that clearly — she lets him make the decisions regarding how fast the relationship moves. There’s not a whole lot of tension here, save for Noel’s brother, Tip (Shea Whigham), starting to wonder if Paul is the right guy for her, and another twist in the story that I’m not going to reveal, as you need to witness it for yourself. It’ll be more powerful that way.
Much of the film involves talking. That’s pretty much it. You learn a lot about each of the main characters this way, and the seemingly heavily improvised dialogue always gives you something interesting to hear. I’m sure the characters were given to the actors and they were given a basic direction regarding how each scene should play out. Afterward, they were free to make up their own words and the camera would just focus on them for as long as they wanted to go on.
This makes the characters for real, as they basically are. Maybe many of the emotions aren’t actually being felt by these actors, but they’re so convincing that it doesn’t matter. They’re fully in character, and they’re saying whatever it is that they think their character would be thinking about at the time. And Director David Gordon Green, in his second feature, just allows them to go about it. He places his trust in these actors, and the payoff is superb. These characters become real, not like most movie people, and we care for them all the more because of this.
There are a couple of additional subplots, like Paul’s relationship with his mother (Patricia Clarkson), with whom he still lives despite being in his mid twenties, or the one between Paul and all of his friends, but the focus is most definitely on the one with Noel. Every scene that the two characters share are worthwhile. They’re given all the time in the world to talk, to work on things, and to show us who they are. It’s only natural that we care about them with this technique.
Some of what little story there is feels forced. I didn’t understand one decision by a character late in the picture, and I felt like I should have. You can, I’m sure, justify it, given where the character is in life and the influences pushing against him/her, but the rationale for the character to do it wasn’t there. Perhaps that’s the point, in that irrational decisions are a part of life, but even that’s not talked about. It was just an “I did it, okay?” thing, and that was that. And if you’re thinking I just gave away what happens, think again.
It all leads up to an ambiguous and slightly unsatisfying ending. It makes sense in context, but when the emotions are this high, you want to see, for better or worse, how it’s all going to work out. You don’t get that here. You have to interpret it and figure it all out for yourself. I don’t mind doing the work, but when you can see it either way, the ending feels like a letdown — like Green wasn’t sure how to finish, so he let us complete it for him.
It ultimately doesn’t matter. The performances are so strong that they carry All the Real Girls regardless of its flaws. They make you feel something in every scene, which is very rare. It’s only when we lose focus on the romance between Paul and Noel that the film starts to drag. It’s an unfocused film in general, but at least for most of the time, it knows which characters deserve to be the center of attention. A film like this one leans on its actors and the emotions they generate; this is one that’s successful in doing so.
All the Real Girls, David Gordon Green’s second feature film, is a large success. He seems to give minimal direction in regards to his actors, allowing them to go about each scene as if they were involved in it in real life. This allows for a film that feels natural and very real. When the emotions run high, we feel like we’re there every step of the way. When it loses focus of the leading romance, it does start to drag a bit, but because of how much we care about the main characters, it is absolutely worth a watch.