Writer-director David Gordon Green’s debut feature George Washington, first released in 2000, has recently been issued on Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection. This is an unconventional little indie film, loaded with memorable performances by young, untrained actors. Green’s vision certainly isn’t lacking for ideas. However, despite near unanimous critical acclaim, the intriguing whole of its mix of realism and stylization is decidedly less than the sum of its parts. Where it excels is in evoking a particular setting, in this case a hot, sweaty summer in a severely depressed area in North Carolina.
The first half of the film is sort of a free-form collection of moments in the lives of George Richardson (Donald Holden), a young teen whose skull never properly fused. It remains as soft as a newborn’s, requiring that he wear a helmet and also avoid water. His condition seems to have hampered his ability to process information at a normal rate, though his oppressive home life can’t have helped his intellectual development. He lives with his Aunt Ruth (Janet Taylor) and Uncle Damascus (Eddie Rouse). George adopts a mangy stray dog, feeding him gummi bears and walking him around with a piece of rope as a leash. Green’s heavy-handed foreshadowing promises nothing good will come of this, especially seeing as Damascus is scared of canines (we learn he was vigorously humped by a dog at the tender age of six).
George and his friends, including Buddy (Curtis Cotton III), Vernon (Damian Jewan Lee), and Sonya (Rachael Handy), pass the time by roughhousing in an abandoned, dilapidated miniature golf course. Nadia (Candace Evanofski) is George’s tentative romantic interest. She’s an introspective teen who doubles as the film’s narrator. Though she believes strongly in George’s potential for greatness, what she doesn’t know is that he inadvertently caused the death of one of his friends. Ironically, given George’s own delicate condition, it was a head injury that did the boy in. This event is actually where George Washington begins having problems, because it interrupts the impressionistic narrative approach with a galvanizing plot point. George and his friends decide to hide the body, even though the death was an accident. To varying degrees, the second half of the film deals with the kids’ wildly different reactions to the loss of their friend, but not in any truly developed way.
When George has the opportunity to save another boy from drowning—at great risk to his own physical well-being, considering he has to dive into a pool—he appears to be seeking redemption for his earlier actions. But his transformation into a self-perceived “superhero” is treated as something of a deadpan joke (George begins wearing a sheet as a cape and spontaneously directs traffic). One component of his hero’s costume is his deceased friend’s basketball uniform. Given the active missing-person case, it’s illogical that George isn’t pegged as a person-of-interest. The few significant adult characters in George Washington seem to have all suffered from extremely arrested development, rendering them no more wise or worldly than the kids. Despite the effectiveness of the young actors’ performances, Green seems unable to draw the same level of believability from his adult cast members, a flaw that seriously mars George.
Transferred from a 35mm interpositive, George Washington looks excellent on Blu-ray. Criterion has presented a consistently clean image that shows off the “hot” oranges and reds that dominate Tim Orr’s acclaimed cinematography. Many stylized shots occur throughout George, including deliberately unfocused or low contrast shots. But the shots that were intended to convey documentary-style realism are sharp. The only audio option is a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track that offers a flawless, if simple, listening experience. At times music cues slightly overpower dialogue, but these were apparently deliberate stylistic choices.
The supplement package is entirely carried over from Criterion’s previous DVD edition. There’s a 2001 commentary track by writer-director Green, cinematographer Orr, and actor Schneider. It’s an exceedingly laidback affair, but there are some interesting insights (as well as a fair amount of pretention) along the way. It would’ve been interesting to hear a new commentary, looking back on his debut some 14 years later. A pair of student films directed by Green offer a glimpse at the origins of George Washington, particularly the shot-on-video Pleasant Grove. The more visually sophisticated Physical Pinball co-stars a couple George cast members.
The 1969 short film by Clu Gulager A Day with the Boy is included because of its influence on Green. A 15-minute “Cast Reunion” was shot the year after George’s release and doesn’t add much. More pretensions are in evidence in the 14-minute Charlie Rose interview with Green (also from 2001). A single, lengthy deleted scene has optional commentary. All the bonus features are doubled on the included standard DVD.
George Washington is ultimately a thought-provoking film that lacks clarity of vision. Director David Gordon Green (who has since helmed some very mainstream comedies, including Pineapple Express and The Sitter) made an ambitious debut feature that, in the end, seems unsure of what it was trying to say. Perhaps indicated by its irrelevant title (in the commentary, Green says the name has no particular meaning and reveals the original title was Da Duh Nuh Na, apparently slang for tighty-whitey briefs), George Washington needed a bit more time in the incubator for its many interesting ideas to fully congeal.