The Daily Tar Heel

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Friday August 19th

`George Washington' Avoids Trite Poverty Clich

"George Washington"
5 Stars

George W. himself appears in the film "George Washington" only on a dollar bill; a portrait of George (no-W.) Bush which hangs in one character's bedroom is far more prominent.

But our first president's spirit pervades these frames, which explore the distinctly American idea that any child can grow up to be a hero -- or at least lead the country.

The images of "George Washington" will haunt my dreams. A black boy in a homemade superhero outfit directing traffic that doesn't need direction; a man carving his child's pet dog into a coonskin-style cap; a train car seen in such a closeup shot that it seems a machine from another world.

Set in Winston-Salem, "George" tells of kids coming to terms with their poor world. One, George Richardson, suffers a congenital birth defect which makes his head sensitive and requires him to wear a protective helmet. Another, a waifish blonde, frets that she has no capacity for regret.

The adults in their lives experience similar roadblocks to achieving heroic compassion. George's guardian uncle compulsively cuts firewood -- and anything else he can find -- in their backyard.

One worker at the railyard where much of the action occurs cares for the neighborhood children but can only think about their superficial physical safety: "Is your urine clear? That's good. Means you're healthy."

Though every character here is swimming below the poverty level, this isn't in an "Aren't those children so pathetic? Just look at them. Let's weep" picture. Poverty doesn't always mean sorrow. These kids find meditative joy in games and crushes.

"George's" first third is a spate of moments. Practically each shot is its own tiny scene; so much snippety dialogue and meditative still-frame combine into a thoroughly convincing evocation of the scattershot coherence of long-ago memories.

This sense of recollection becomes even more palpable once the film gains narrative thrust, through a cataclysmic plot turn. Tragedy forces three of the children to discover heroism within themselves -- or its lack -- and the film's small episodes reach a blissful profundity.

Much has been made of this picture's debt to the work of Terrence Malick. And "George's" director, David Gordon Green, admits that "The Thin Red Line" helped inspire him. But Green does Malick one better, by reigning in the pensive beauty of his well-shot images, never repeating himself and spicing the solemnity with absurd hilarity.

Near the film's end, one child tells another, "Sometimes I smile and laugh when I think about all the great things you're going to do. I hope you never die." The same could be said to Green. A debut this assured promises a stunning and heroic career.

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at artsdesk@unc.edu.

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