March 8, 2001

Cornell Cinema

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The exact meaning of the title George Washington is never explained clearly for the audience of the film. It could be a reflection of one of the main characters, whose name is also George and becomes a kind of hero. Maybe the title relates to the presence of United States history in the atmosphere around the Fourth of July. I’m of the opinion that this story — which follows a group of adolescents striving to find themselves amidst poverty, crime and heartache — is ironically as “American” as the first president himself.

Nasia (Candace Evanofski) is a twelve-year-old African American girl who narrates the tale of her friends’ lives in a rural Southern town. It’s summer and the kids spend their time going swimming, going to church and just hanging out with each other. Two boys in particular, Buddy (Curtis Cotton, III), just dumped by Nasia, and his best friend George (Donald Holden), who Nasia later falls for, emerge as key characters.

At first, it seems that the film’s slow pace would retard any character development, but the opposite is true. By the end, the characters seem to have opened their hearts to each other and to the audience. The conversations between the kids begin to gain importance after a member of the group dies in an accident. The three witnesses try to cover up the accident and avoid responsibility. This event results in diverse personal transformations. George tries to help others even at the risk of his own life, while the other two witnesses, Sonya (Rachael Handy) and Vernon (Damian Jewan Lee) try to escape. They first steal a car, but when they crash it, Sonya turns herself into the police and Vernon hitches a train out of the South. The adolescents’ understanding of death are all unique, but none are concrete. The film takes advantage of this perspective, thus illustrating how important uncorrupted and natural responses are in teenagers.

George Washington was made with a tiny budget, a non-professional cast and a 19 day shooting schedule. However, this film was shot in 35 mm Cinemascope, a type of film stock that adds aesthetic appeal and a larger scale to the movie. Often low-budget films use digital cameras or 16 mm film — which work for movies such as The Blair Witch Project or Dogma –but here, the cinematography lends itself to Nasia’s poetic narration and the ironic beauty of the gritty setting. Writer and director David Gordon Green used documentary techniques that keep the audience at a distant, objective perspective. While the audience may feel like it has a privileged view of these characters’ lives, the camera never allows the audience to see the most intimate interactions.

While the film is focused on a small group of adolescents, it demonstrates how their predicament acts as a microcosm to which anyone can relate. Each individual’s problems in the environment seems to be rooted within the family. For example, Buddy’s hard outer shell melts as he describes how he must sing to his mother so that she can fall asleep. The adolescents are at an age when their fronts are expendable and their true personalities are valued. Without being sentimental, George Washington succeeds in sending an optimistic message.

The film closes as George has developed the persona of a hero. His ambition and hope are not affected traits but rather natural ones. It seems strange that the film is centered on the idea of a hero, which in our society can seem like a foreign concept, but George Washington shows how heroes can be anyone, even teenagers.

Archived article by Diana Lind