The best American film I’ve seen this year, David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls, reminds us that, in movies as elsewhere, the simplest things are the hardest to pull off. Take love stories. The pattern couldn’t be simpler. Boy meets girl, complications ensue, love triumphs (or doesn’t). But when was the last time you saw this done with real freshness and conviction? The romance genre has been betrayed so often by Hollywood that we’ve lost the sense of its possibilities.

This is where the truly independent filmmaker enters the picture, ready to prove his vision’s strength against the recalcitrance of deeply entrenched formulas. In Green’s case, though, the small miracle of his astonishingly thorough artistic success is matched by an added element of cultural fascination: All the Real Girls is easily the most impressive North Carolina art film of recent vintage.

In saying that, I’m referring not just to the fact that the film was shot in western N.C. by a group of filmmakers who emerged from the N.C. School of the Arts and its School of Film. Just as significantly, ATRG seems grounded by a strongly local (or regional) aesthetic, one that has notable parallels in North Carolina indie rock.

Indeed, if you’re looking for the cinematic equivalent of a favorite Connells or Superchunk album, I doubt you’ll find any recent movie to match this one’s harmonic blend of quirky intelligence, emotional veracity and skillfully elaborated formal simplicity.

Green’s unprepossessing triumph comes as a welcome surprise. His 2000 debut, George Washington, a film centered on a group of preternaturally self-aware black kids whose world is disrupted by an untimely death, struck me as a problematic mix of youthful promise and student-film awkwardness. That it won extravagant praise in some quarters (including the New York Film Critics Circle’s award for Best First Film) wasn’t necessarily a happy portent, either. Too often I’ve seen such acclaim go straight to a young filmmaker’s head, resulting in a second feature of suffocating self-regard or pretension.

Avoiding that trap entirely, the confident-yet-amiably-modest ATRG shows Green to have his head screwed on exactly right, which both solidifies and multiplies the sense of his promise. Clearly, the intriguing and distinctive elements of George Washington were no fluke. Green possesses that rare thing, a real cinematic vision–one perhaps already more developed than that of any other young American director.

Vision means that what’s most important in his films is not the matter but the manner–the juncture of style and sensibility. In interviews Green has allowed that his primary influences are American movies of the 1970s, and many have noted his affinity for the work of Terrence Malick, including Badlands and Days of Heaven. (Writing in Film Comment, critic Nathan Lee calls Green a “Malick-out-of-Carolina.” But there’s an even closer geographic connection. Though Green was schooled in North Carolina, he, like Malick, is a native Texan.)

As in George Washington, the world Green creates in ATRG is very much an imaginary construct: a forgotten corner of North Carolina that, no doubt, only exists in his head. A friend recently called Green’s style “stilted naturalism.” I would amend that to “deliberately idiosyncratic naturalism,” which is to say a naturalism that cannily admits its own artificiality so as not be confused with realism.

As a result, people in Green’s world–even little kids and mill workers–speak in an oddly literary way, wherein stutters and idiomatic commonplaces fuse with expressions that seem born of the ether. Visually, they inhabit a rundown, but appealingly bucolic North Carolina that hasn’t yet been invaded by strip malls and 7-Elevens. In George Washington I saw this idealization as an evasion of tawdry reality; now I see it as Green’s perhaps necessary means of asserting a reality that cuts deeper than mere surfaces–an emotional reality, if you will.

The calculated artificiality of his style thus is a purposeful strategy, a way of countering the hackneyed and formulaic artifices of Hollywood. Although ATRG is about young love, you won’t confuse it with any major-studio film on that subject, because it stresses its own point of view to the extent of making that its primary subject.

Yet the final effect is to offer a view of love that’s startlingly more honest, thoughtful and penetrating than we’re used to seeing in movies.

The film opens with Paul (Paul Schneider) and Noel (Zooey Deschanel) gazing into each others eyes, sweetly goofy smiles on their faces.

“What are you looking at?” he asks, a question that might as well be addressed to the audience.

“I’m looking at that ol’ bucket thinking I like you, I like you because I can say what’s on my mind,” she replies, letting us know right away that we’re in a North Carolina where people not only think but sometimes do so while looking at old buckets.

What is on her mind, he inquires.

“Why haven’t you ever kissed me?”

Now we are into it. She wants to be kissed; very soon, with a kind of oddball Southern courtliness, he will kiss the palm of her hand. Yet even before that, we’ve glimpsed the key elements in their brand-new relationship: her hopeful directness, his careful reticence.

If there is a problem here–and we know there must be–it’s that they are coming at romance from opposite directions. Though they’re not too far apart in age (she’s 18, he’s 22), that four-year divide might as well be the grand canyon separating Innocence and Experience.

Noel has just returned to town after a long spell in a girls boarding school. Paul has spent his recent years as the town’s most successful Lothario, dogging and bedding a succession of girls. Noel is new to love because she’s never had a partner. Paul’s new to it because he’s had too many.

Naturally, the emotional rapids they’re heading into are scariest to him. What he tells Noel in that first scene is that he hasn’t kissed her because he doesn’t want to anger her brother, Tip (Shea Whigham), a pompadoured tough guy who’s his best friend. There’s some truth to this. Tip really doesn’t want Paul messing around with his sister because he knows what kind of guy Paul is–a guy very much like himself, alas.

All the same, Tip’s suspicious antagonism partly functions as an excuse, or a projection of Paul’s own fears of getting involved. Yet Paul knows from the first that Noel is something new in his life, a force that might well prompt him to break with old fears and habits.

Actor Paul Schneider, who cowrote ATRG‘s story with Green, has said, “To me, it’s about a guy who idealizes a woman and thinks that she can save him from a bad situation. In the end he realizes that his life is the bad situation and he’s the only one who can do anything about it.”

That’s only one interpretation, of course, but it’s worth pondering because it underscores that ATRG is about more than just young love–it’s about a certain time in one’s life, about how people use love to deal with an array of circumstances, about how romance ultimately can’t be divorced from our other relationships.

Commendably, this is one film that doesn’t keep its lovers trapped in a tight two-shot. Like a lot of Southern literature, it sees love as inevitably intermingled with family and community. While Paul has a group of pals with names like Bo and Bust-ass, Noel frequents a more upscale circle of friends who represent a different set of temptations and pressures. Paul also must justify his new romance to his separated parents, Elvira (Patty Clarkson) and Leland (Benjamin Mouton).

Still, the film at its most affecting when the background recedes and Noel and Paul are again looking at each other, trying to gauge how their attempts to open their hearts without losing their balance are working out. It is not an easy thing, this venture into unknown territory, and ATRG is finally most impressive in how delicately it conveys the pain and uncertainty that comes with a first real love, even among people smart enough to know when they’re verging into self-deception.

Credit here must go to Green’s two leads, who give extraordinarily fresh and skilled performances. Schneider, an Asheville native, seems like the quintessential “North Carolina guy” of a certain age and sensitivity. Deschanel, the daughter of renowned cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, projects a complementary mix of tentativeness and boldness that’s most noticeable in her throaty, faltering voice.

Seeing the film a second time recently, I was struck by the assurance of its execution as well as by the quiet maturity of its vision: Every scene counts for something. (This was largely absent in the sometimes jarring unevenness of George Washington). And with cinematographer Tim Orr, Green conjures a mountain mill town (the film was mostly shot around Marshall, N.C.) swathed in golden winter light, a landscape carefully poised between the pastoral and the prosaic.

It is a very funny film too, in many moments, but I can’t imagine many viewers will come out thinking they’ve seen a “romantic comedy.” That’s because the genre’s very definition now is so bound up with Hollywood’s avoidance of essential seriousness and real feeling. Green’s sincerity in seeking both, without compunction or apology, points to a cinema capable of reaching beyond indie-film irony and major-studio vapidity alike, a cinema of genuine sentiments and searching formal sensitivity.

You hardly see that combination anywhere in world cinema these days. We are lucky to witness its emergence from North Carolina. EndBlock