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Slow ride

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All the Real Girls feels like the cinematic equivalent of kicking a tin can along a dirt road. The ultimate direction of the film feels like a fluke, governed more by fate than by its screenwriters.

This follow-up to director David Gordon Green's highly regarded, similarly pokey George Washington revisits a South of moldering industrial buildings, Hallmark golden skies and characters whose only mission in life seems to be to kill time.

Noel (Zooey Deschanel) returns to her North Carolina hometown and catches the eye of local ladies' man Paul (Paul Schneider). But Paul's tomcatting reputation doesn't sit well with his lady-killing partner-in-crime Tip (Shea Whigham), who also happens to be Noel's brother.

All the Real Girls is the kind of film that inspires sharp divisions: Some viewers will find their blood boiling at the just-get-on-with-it pace and non sequitur dialogue that makes these small-town Southerners sound like their brains have been baking too long in the sun. Green combines an unabashed sentimentality with a boyish sense of comedy and an improvisational, male-centered ambience like Tarantino gone slow and easy as a country tune.

Green has certainly captured the texture of the early stages of a relationship. Paul and Noel's strange, halting conversations and raw confessions distill that magical, freeform time when a romance is just beginning and one's sense of possibility expands tenfold. What Green doesn't offer are characters worth investing so much time in. The characters are opaque and often maddening in their inability to communicate. Paul hangs with a posse of overage wastrels who loiter and talk trash. The Peter Pan friends spend all their time outdoors, sprawled in Larry Clark-meets-Thomas Eakins tableaux in front of bonfires and the town's lazy river. No one seems to work other than some vague tinkering with a field full of decaying cars. The film's sense of realism is also its most aggravating feature, because the realism seems so calculated, frilly and forced.

But Girls is also the kind of film whose emphasis on tender guy friendships and wispy romanticism may attract fans the same way Hal Hartley manages to similarly beguile with his idiosyncratically earnest treacle. It's likely many people will be willing to take this meandering ride. Opens April 11.

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