A scene from 'George Washington'
Courtesy Photo
**1/2 stars 89 minutes | Unrated
Opened: Friday, January 26, 2001
Written & directed by David Gordon Green

Starring Donald Holden, Curtis Cotton III, Candace Evanofski, Eddie Rouse, Paul Schneider, Damien Jewan Lee, Rachael Handy, Jonathan Davidson, Janet Taylor, Scott Clackum, Jason Shirley, Christian Gustoitisbr>

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Discontented children in a broken town misguidedly cover up a friend's death in raw, troubling 'George'

By Rob Blackwelder

Like a thought-provoking Spike Lee social commentary without all the hip pretense, "George Washington" is a startlingly authentic portrait of apathy, futility and discontented boredom ingrained upon a group of poverty-stricken kids in the rural South.

This vérité-style festival buzz pic centers around best friends Buddy (Curtis Cotton III), a contemplative 13-year-old nursing a broken heart, and George (Donald Holden), an ambitious boy with a bone ailment that has left his skull so soft he wears a old football helmet (with a broken facemask) everywhere he goes to protect him from unexpected blows that could kill him.

These two, and a handful of pals, spend their days escaping turbulent home lives (George's dog is deliberately killed by his unemployed drunk of an uncle) by wandering aimlessly around their dilapidated ex-industrial town of boarded-up store fronts, abandoned water parks and shattered souls. Quite literally they have nothing else to do, and the movie resonates with the kids' malaise without falling victim to it.

But their habitually, disturbingly, willfully detached way they've learned to live their lives is shaken when, during a moment of half-hearted roughhousing, one of the kids (ironically not George) falls, fatally striking his head on a cement floor.

Convinced blame (and perhaps legal culpability) will be laid at their collective feet, the kids cover up the accident and let the town think the dead child ran away. Writer and director David Gordon Green then moves in close to examine how subsurface guilt, or lack of it, begins to effect each of his characters -- sometimes in unexpected ways. George, for instance, becomes determined to be a savoir and starts pursuing an everyman superhero fantasy, trying to save lives and be an excessively exemplary citizen.

This turning point in the plot, however, is also where the picture begins leaving a trail of unanswered questions.

Why these kids don't try to get their friend to a hospital or call for help isn't entirely clear. Yes, they're afraid of blame. Yes, their meager consciences haven't kicked in. But are they really so dim as to think they couldn't explain themselves?

On a more nagging, literal level, there are moments where Green seems to forget the conditions under which his characters live, like when the children take a taxi to the location where they hide the body. OK, 1) Where did they get the money for a taxi? 2) There's a cab company in a town where nobody has any money? 3) The cabby didn't notice that one of the kids had blood all over him?

But the remarkable simplicity, honesty and gravity brought to "George Washington" by its cast of non-professional actors helps push the viewer beyond such logistical hiccups, impossible to ignore as they are.

The certain turmoil the kids seem doomed to endure really weighs on their forever troubled minds in a way that permeates the viewer's psyche so effectively that the movie's tangible empathetic impact makes up for its distracting logical loopholes.

Green's story and direction are so cogitative that it seems he could only have ignored the film's shortcomings consciously, as if to say, "Yes, these things don't make sense, but what I'm saying is more important." If you become engrossed enough in the picture, which is easy to do, he might be right. But the nagging faults would have been so easy to fix that it's hard to let them slide, even in a film with as much raw power as this one.

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