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Writer and director David Gordon Green‘s touching film about new love and heartbreak is a small, quite story about one person’s journey away from one life and another’s rise out of an old. Their collision in the middle is a bittersweet, highly emotional story that is effortlessly raw and poignant, one that is saturated in authenticity and breaks from the modern conventions of the genre. It’s opening shot is a brilliantly photographed, directed, and performed moment.
Paul (Paul Schneider) is a drifter in a dead-end middle American factory town with a few good friends who spend their time on the fringes, drinking and remembering their glory days. Noel (Zooey Deschanel) is the sister of one of Paul’s more aggressive friends. She has just come home from boarding school and when she and Paul meet, something flickers and they tenderly, cautiously explore their feelings. He is very experienced and can barely date anyone as his flings and one-night stands and reckless abandonment of girls in town have left him with a sordid reputation. Noel doesn’t know all of that and her effect on Paul is so powerful, it changes his core, and spins him on a dizzy path of self-reflection and acceptance he’s not entirely ready for. There are consequences from his past, but worse, for him, Noel, now released by his affections, blossoms and explores on her own. It’s a devastatingly powerful film.
Green opens his story in a darkened street alley with the lovers facing each other. We don’t know who they are, what their names are, why they are together or even where they are. It’s just two people alone. Before a word is spoken, we learn a lot though. The shadowed space, the dim light, the cluttered abandoned-looking alley all hint at a meeting that is for the most part held in secret. Or at least one they wish to keep private. It’s most likely autumn, as each are in heavy coats, their hands deep in pockets and a few small trees sit behind them, stripped of leaves. We can see their breath. It is perhaps a clue to the timing in their relationship.
There is a pause before the first word comes and then Paul asks her what she is thinking. She remarks that she looking at an old bucket and thinking that she likes him because she can say what’s on her mind. When he gently presses for why, she asks him why he hasn’t ever kissed her. It’s a jarring question simply because by looking at them, it seems this is something they’ve longed passed. He confesses he is scared, scared that if her brother asks if he’s kissed his sister, he’ll have to say yes.
So now we learn a reason why they are in the alley and why their meeting is sheltered. But there is more under his words. We sense they have deeper meaning. She senses it, too. She flatly tells him that she doesn’t want to be with a man who doesn’t want to be with her. The subtle ultimatum prods the real truth. Paul admits that if he kisses her, he doesn’t want it to be like when he kisses other girls. There it is.
That one sentence, while it seems slight here in the opening, well before we understand that he has kissed many and none with any meaning, is still a powerful admission. You can feel the hesitation in his voice and his body shudders as he starts. This is something he’s just realizing about himself and it jolts him. This girl is different. Powerfully so.
She has a plan, seemingly aware of his past. She offers her hand, raising her palm and instructing him to kiss her there so the first will be different from the others. He grasps her hand in his and looks around as if wondering who may be watching. Why? Because this is the most emotional moment he’s ever had with a girl and the vulnerability of it has shook him so, he, for the first time, is weakened. He then attends to a short on-the-fly ritual of cleansing the palm and making a mock prayer, a sign of dedication that this moment will be special and wants her to know it. He then gives her a gentle glance and lays his lips upon her hand, kissing her softly for eight full seconds.
She then lifts her kissed hand and touches his head, running her fingers through his hair before leaning him into him, giving him their first real kiss. This simple act of invitation, voicelessly signaling him that he has permission shutters all his defenses and the two fall into each other with great passion. The first notes of a soft guitar gently break the silence and the scene fades as the lovers embrace. The story begins.
Green wisely starts in a place that will resonant far after it’s over. While we go back a bit in time once this shot ends, we remember where some of it leads to so no matter what happens with these remarkable characters, we know that they at least had this one genuine moment of truth. Avoiding the sweeping grand public gestures of affection so prominent in romantic movies, this simple, stark, and raw moment speaks to much about the tone and narrative approach Green will take. This is about two young lovers in a claustrophobic world with closed opportunities at every turn. We will discover that soon enough. But here, in this opening shot, it is limitless and the promises of a kiss are hopeful and inspiring. A classic beginning.
David Gordon Green
David Gordon Green (story), Paul Schneider (story)
Zooey Deschanel, Paul Schneider, Patricia Clarkson