When it comes to storytelling (or songwriting for that matter) love is probably the most over-utilized jumping off point. It’s to be expected. So many of us spend so much of our time longing for it or working towards it or doing our best to maintain it. The stakes of losing love are high enough as to almost necessitate injecting it into a story whenever you can. It’s the most basic tale we can tell. What has manifested then is a genre that uses love as a starting point while spending much more time exploring it’s minutiae. And so, All the Real Girls.
Paul (Paul Schneider) is a small-town mechanic with no direction and little motivation. He’s a sexual conquistador and along with his best friend Tip (Shea Whigham), has bested most of the town’s female population. And everything stays the same and Paul, at the onset of his twenties, is just a bit lost. When Tip’s younger sister Noel (Zooey Deschanel) returns home from school, she soon becomes the next step for Paul. At first, their love grows easily and in bursts, and Noel remains a virgin because that’s what love is, or respect. Of course though, things get complicated and love gets tested. Paul and Noel find themselves dealing with grown-up problems and are forced to determine exactly how prepared they are for the hazards of life and love.
Essentially this is a story about a guy realizing how much harder love is than sex. Harder to find, harder to navigate, and so on. Paul’s motivation has changed so drastically and so suddenly, even he isn’t sure about his destination. And Noel is enigmatic and perfect for the guy he imagines himself to be, if not now, someday. The love story in this film is intriguing because it is simultaneously effortless and a struggle. Aside from a mild “little sister” conflict between Paul and Tip that never really has legs, this young couple floats along beautifully without any real obstacles. That is, until they get in their own way. Noel’s immaturity and Paul’s pride serve as the tallest hurdles in this story, and nobody can keep them from themselves as well as each other.
David Gordon Green is hard at work in this film. His approach to storytelling here is to construct with pieces of the whole, letting the gaps remain unseen and unconsidered. Time comes in bursts, a day in minutes, a week in seconds. We catch only minute glimpses of Paul and Noel’s courtship, and somehow this is even more intimate than the alternative. It could be simply that we are so used to seeing a traditional love story unfold traditionally, that the contrast is that much more conspicuous. What might allow this to go deeper though is how organically the relationship builds. Without letting it get away from him, David Gordon Green is able to establish a structure that shows us not only the key moments, but the minor ones as well, the ones that reveal a personal connection as the ongoing process it must be. It’s an enchantingly effective maneuver and here, the potential of the result far outweighs the risk.
The character of Noel may be the only element of the story that catches. Her dramatic leap into the world of consequences seems a bit sudden and leaves us not only shell-shocked, but unsure of what was once a constant. Gasp moments can be necessary and do nothing if not move a story forward. Still, this hinges on removing any element of doubt regarding what a character is capable of doing or not doing. Perhaps that element of doubt still exists here, and unfortunately, it weakens the character of Noel.
But All the Real Girls still flourishes. It’s a fitful love story that entwines itself with small town sensitivity and the cloudy beauty of the Midwest. While emotional journeys are abundant in film, this somehow breathes with a realism not nearly so plentiful, and it is in this that the story stays visible. Paul and Noel are important because they are sincere, and it is their reality that keeps the love story real.