Over the course of one hot summer, a group of children in the decaying rural South must confront a tangle of difficult choices. An ambitiously constructed, elegantly photographed meditation on adolescence, the first full-length film by director David Gordon Green features remarkable performances from an award-winning ensemble cast. George Washington is a startling and distinct work of contemporary American independent cinema.
After re-watching 'Prince Avalanche' last month and realizing how much I enjoy David Gordon Green's films, when I saw that his acclaimed debut feature 'George Washington' was getting the Criterion Blu-ray treatment, I knew I had to review it.
'George Washington' is a very natural and raw indie film that follows a group of innocent kids in a poor area of North Carolina. It's narrated by Nasia, the ex-girlfriend of one of the lead characters. Nasia pops in and out of the film, so her narration is much like our own observations. She doesn't know for sure what she's explaining, but based on what she sees, her commentary on the events is factual.
The main group of kids consists of Buddy, Vernon, Sonia, and the titular character George. The innocence of these four characters is genuine. Buddy suffers the heartbreak of having Nasia break up with him in the opening scene. He's a good kid, constantly worrying about his mother's well-being. Vernon is the biggest kid of the group. While his stature and actions are intimidating, he's a giant teddy bear. When around his friends, he wears his emotions on his sleeve – but when around anyone else, he puts on the tough guy act. Sonia is the only white girl of the group. With beach-blonde hair, she sticks out to everyone else – but not in the slightest to anyone in the group. You see, like with most kids, our leading characters are oblivious to race, class, gender and any other classifications or labels that adults place on people. George has a major disability, but it doesn't affect how others treat or view him. His skull didn't fuse together properly as a baby, so the slightest physical trauma to his head can severely disable or kill him. Because of this, he wears a hard football helmet wherever he goes. Despite this preventative oddity, no one looks at him any differently.
Throughout the film, we're given great adult characters. Two of them receive more emphasis than the others: Rico Rice (Paul Schneider) and Damascus (Eddie Rouse). These characters show the two different routes that any of these kids can go with adulthood. Rico is basically an overgrown kid. He still carries the naivete of a child; he's funny and enjoyable to be around. Damascus is the type of adult who has lost that innocence; he's bogged down by the stress and pressure of being an adult. After seeing the night-and-day differences between Rico and Damascus, you'll begin to wonder which of the kids will go which way.
The first half of the film paints a beautiful picture of childhood. Watching it brought back nostalgic memories and sensations from my own youth. I enjoyed this segment of 'George Washington' so much that the second half startled me. After enjoying watching kids be kids for the first half, the mature second half shocked me. An accident happens within our main group and all are forced to immediately grow up and make life-changing decisions. Despite being between 12 and 14 years of age, how they choose to act in this moment will forever weigh on the rest of their lives, causing them to become a Rico or a Damascus. As a viewer, the nostalgia of childhood that I had experienced in the first half was immediately halted at this point. I had to make the same decision. How am I going to react to this event in the film?
There's a lot to chew on with 'George Washington.' Now 24 hours after having watched it, I'm still working it out and analyzing it in my head. Before sitting down to type this, I even contemplated watching it again so that I could have a more congealed opinion of the film. That's what makes a truly great film – one that you can't stop thinking about and want to re-watch almost immediately just to form your own complete opinion. I'm surprised that I'm just now seeing and hearing about the 14-year-old film. 'George Washington' is yet another high point in indie filmmaking that I recommend to anyone who loves solid and thought-provoking dramas.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This is the first Criterion release that I've reviewed that comes as a dual format Blu-ray/DVD release. The Blu-ray disc is a BD-50 and both discs rest overlapped and untouching on the inner right cover. The usual booklet, which contains an essay about 'George Washington' by critic Armond White and a "director's statement" by Green, rests on the inner left side of the case. The case itself is made of clear plastic that allows you to see additional artwork that's printed on the back side of the cover art sheet. The spine lists 'George Washington' as disc 152 in Criterion's collection and a sticker outside the cellophane packaging notes that this is a "director approved" transfer. Nothing but a Criterion load screen plays before the disc's static main menu. 'George Washington' is currently unrated, but I'm certain that if the MPAA were to rate it now, it would receive a PG-13 rating solely for thematic elements.
'George Washington' joins Criterion's Blu-ray collection with a sharp 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that presents the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The first thing to stand out during the film's Terrence Malick-esque prologue are the gorgeous highly saturated colors. The green landscape of North Carolina in the summer is warm and inviting (despite the settings being cluttered with rundown buildings and scattered garbage). The blue in George's helmet pops against the vibrant greens. The earthy palette brings out the richest warmth. Combined with the director's fantastic imagery, the look and style of 'George Washington' is fantastic and the Blu-ray's video quality does it great justice.
Prior to watching the Blu-ray, I'd only seen one trailer for the film on Criterion's website. That trailer – which is also included on the disc as a special feature – is highly flawed, so I was expecting fairly damaged and mild video qualities. As they always do, the folks at Criterion have cleaned-up 'George Washington' spectacularly. The included booklet notes that "thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps jitter and flicker were manually removed." While I wholeheartedly believe that to be true (because most of those flaws are missing), there are still plenty of tiny specks of dust or debris that appear throughout the film. They're not huge nor distracting, but you'll notice them. Some scenes feature digital noise in the bright skies, but that's not a common occurrence.
Nearly every scene in the film features great amounts of details. From minute textures to well-defined objects and backgrounds, 'George Washington' looks sharp. A few quick shots of a fireworks show lighting up the night sky contain the best-looking fireworks that I've seen on Blu-ray. Instances that would typically cause aliasing – like long, tight chain link fence enclosing a public pool – don't. The same goes for moments that you'd expect to see bands. The only bad-looking scene in the whole movie is a single quick shot of Damascus chopping wood at dusk. The natural lighting (meaning a lack of lighting) causes massive crushing. Aside from that shot and the many specks throughout the film, the video quality is great.
'George Washington' has received the DTS-HD Master Audio treatment. Criterion's transfer notes explain that "the original 2.0 surround soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm Dolby A magnetic track." As with most Criterion audio transfers, all aging flaws have been removed. I didn't notice a single instance of hissing, crackling or popping, all of which the notes says were cleaned up and removed using Pro Tools HD.
As is the nature of 2.0 mixes, all of the sounds are forward. The magic to this mix is how each element still sounds layered. The voices, music and effects don't blandly mix into one sound; instead, the more intently you listen, the more distinct each element appears. Although recorded on a very low budget, the audio never has that cheap indie sound. The vocals are crystal clear, the score – which consists of a great amount of long and steadily drawn-out tones – is absolutely mood-setting, and the effects bring the world to life. One artistic Malick-esque scene shows several angles and close-ups of a train briskly rolling down the tracks. The two-beat "click-clack click-clack" sound of boxcars passing over joints in the track is mixed in a way that the "click" eminates from the right channel and the "clack" rings out from the left, allowing the train to sound like it's rolling through your theater in the same direction as it appears to on screen. The imaging may not always be noticeable, but even as a two-channel mix it still strives to use its audio to bring the world to life.
Despite being presented in high definition, all of the features consist of low-grade footage (including VHS).
I consider every chance to review an unknown Criterion title as the opportunity to educate myself in the diversity of film and to broaden my cinematic horizons. 'George Washington' is no exception. It's a slow-burning, thought-provoking drama that deserves to be thought about before moving along to another film. Being David Gordon Green's first feature, his filmmaking influences are immediately evident – unlike his new films that contain his own well-defined flavor. The child actors are just as strong and convincingly moving as the adults. My only qualm with the whole picture is how moving it is. With a first half that's so calm, naive, naturally smooth, and nostalgic, the second half – in which the characters are forced to grow up on-the-fly – is hard to watch in the same experience. But it's all for a reason, the result of which is what makes 'George Washington' a worthy film. The video and audio qualities are fantastic. The disc is loaded with many special features, but none of them are new to the Blu-ray release. If you don't know 'George Washington,' it's definitely worth checking out. If you're a Criterion collector, there's no reason why you won't want to add this director-approved release to your shelf.