Immediately after seeing David Gordon Green's low-budget slice-of-downtrodden-life, struggles-of-young-love drama "All the Real Girls," I made a notation to rate the film three stars, so there must have been something about it I liked quite a bit. But now that I sit down to review the picture a couple weeks later, I barely remember it. Whatever positive impression it left sure didn't last.
Here's what I do remember (and what I can reconstruct from my notes): It's a rocky romance about a North Carolina mill town's young serial lothario, named Paul (Paul Schneider), who falls in real love for the first time with fresh-from-boarding-school Noel (Zooey Deschanel), who is the little sister of Tip (Shea Whingham), Paul's none too thrilled, pompadour-and-tooth-pick toughie best friend.
I remember that the tenderness between Schneider and Deschanel has a serene ring of lingering-in-a-moment authenticity -- most notably the sweet, wondrous, funny opening scene in which they prudently contemplate their first kiss. "I'm scared," Paul explains," I don't want to have to tell Tip I kissed you."
"Why don't you kiss me here?" Noel impishly suggests, holding out her palm, which Paul then brushes off jokingly and -- after looking around to make sure they're alone -- plants a soft, affectionate peck that leads to much more.
But I also remember that with Paul's bland looks and wallpaper personality which shows no hints of cockiness or seductiveness, his small-town stud credibility is less than zero -- no matter how small the town may be.
Perhaps he's been transformed by love and writer-director Green (2000's "George Washington") just chooses not to show us the "before" version of Paul. But the guy Schneider gives us blends into the woodwork of the movie, which takes place in an quiet corner of North Carolina landscaped with rusted busses, gimp dogs, piles of tires and a gentle river, where it always seems like fall and where everybody spends large parts of their aimless, blue-collar days drinking Old Style beer from tall cans.
The talented, low key Deschanel, on the other hand, finally gets her chance to shine after playing third banana in movies like "Abandon," "The Good Girl," "Big Trouble" and "Almost Famous." She's so naturally imbued with her character's essence that you can see in her wide but astute blue eyes -- filled as they are with unspoken complexity and perseverance -- the tarnish of Noel's whole uneventful yet turbulent life.
Green has a gift for creating characteristic atmosphere, and he instills "All the Real Girls" with the town's stout sense of native melancholy, aided in part by the supporting cast of local and non-professional actors -- and especially by Patricia Clarkson ("Far From Heaven") as Paul's doleful mom, who literally puts on a happy face to scrape together some income playing a clown in the pediatric ward of the local hospital.
But Green's use of Noel's intact virginity as an easy symbol of Paul's newfound virtue ("She makes me decent," he moons) betrays a lack of character-writing sophistication and just as easily becomes exploited as a plot device when their romance is challenged by familiarity and wild oats.
It seems I remember more of the film than I thought I did, but only its more prominent particulars -- both good and bad. The experience of the movie as a whole is still a faded blur of humdrum minimalism, personified by Schneider's ambiguous performance as a listless character whose visible traits don't match his supposed personality.