- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2003

"I wish I could read your mind," says Zooey Deschanel as Noel, the girl of consequence in "All the Real Girls." It proves an idle wish, of course.
A recent prep school grad who has returned to her hometown in North Carolina, Noel is addressing the young man with whom she's about to fall in love, Paul Schneider as Paul, the best friend of her older brother, Tip (Shea Wigham).
The movie's first sequence is an extended courtship interlude between Noel and Paul, culminating in a kiss between the characters and expectations of something humorously and emotionally promising on the part of spectators.
The promise falls short of realization, but because this is just the second feature of a young filmmaker from North Carolina named David Gordon Green who collaborated on the scenario with Mr. Schneider you also feel as if there's ample time to make some needed adjustments in an attractive, exploratory style that remains too fugitive for dramatic clarity.
The upshot of this particular love story is that Noel and Paul both seem unable to trust themselves or each other enough to advance safely beyond the preliminary stages of romantic attraction. The movie emerges as a beguiling disappointment, a closer equivalent of the love affair than it needs to be.
The film's moods, textures and images are sometimes extraordinary; one is aware of a considerable gift for intimacy, innovation and poetic realism. Nevertheless, the movie drifts away on you. It becomes as tentative as the love match you're watching. Initially, you're willing to take it to heart. By the fadeout, you're not sure how much this case of heartbreak really matters to the filmmakers.
Ostensibly, Paul and Tip were hell-raisers who have calmed down but remain footloose homebodies. The setting is a mill town doubled by locations in Marshall and Asheville, N.C. You're never sure if the mill, or anything in particular, provides an economic base for the community.
There's one breathtaking shot of stray fibers swirling around inside a factory. Even as you recognize its symbolic application to the characters of "All the Real Girls," you wish the exposition were more informative about the town and its social framework. Cinematographer Tim Orr and his crew have a lovely feel for settings, but the writers are negligent about supplying banal nuts-and-bolts edification.
Paul has a reputation as a notorious heartbreaker, a profile that never quite suits Mr. Schneider's unassertive temperament. Having caroused with him, Tip is loath to see Paul make a play for Noel and possibly add her to a long list of discards, several of whom still seem to be hanging around town.
In fact, far too many promiscuous young people seem to be hanging around and getting on each other's nerves in a locale that offers few visible prospects for making a living and starting families of their own.
Paul still lives with his mother, Elvira, played by the increasingly invaluable Patricia Clarkson. Her frustration at her son's lack of commitment and faith is easy to believe, but the filmmakers edge her a bit dubiously in hysteric directions.
Mr. Green's disarming flair for pretending to find people behaving more or less naturally in surroundings that are seldom of interest to Hollywood may put an eccentric burden on his contrivances, which stick out more than they would in a shamelessly bogus context.
Anyway, at this juncture, Mr. Green's methodology is more appealing for its potential than its accomplishment. A similar sense of anticipation was justified about Paul Thomas Anderson when "Hard Eight" surfaced in 1997. I'm not sure "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia" and "Punch-Drunk Love" have begun to clear up the question of what sort of intuitions Mr. Anderson possesses and how he is compelled to express them.
For better or worse, we now have the David Gordon Green mystery to contemplate.

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