No, not an 18th century historical, but instead a look at children's lives in small-town working class America. It's been widely praised. It bored me.
The story... exists, after a fashion, but it's not a priority. A couple of things happen during the movie, but by and large we're just watching a bunch of kids in a poor ex-industrial area. They exist. For a while, that's it. Later we're watching responses to something, some of which are interesting. I liked the film's comparisons and gentle ironies. Someone dons a superhero costume and starts saving people, while Animal-Killing Dad offers thematic parallels. There's even a slight suggestion that official punishment might in some cases be short-circuiting our natural tendencies to try to come to terms with what we've done, which if left alone might have led us somewhere more profound. (Or, as is more likely, not.)
It's an intelligent, sensitive film. However I was struggling to keep watching. Here are some quotes from David Gordon Green:
"I can't remember how much film we shot, but I know I've shot commercials on more. Maybe it was forty thousand feet. It was real simple: one take, alright, we got it; one take, alright, we got it."
"The scenes that I'd written and the shots I had in mind had to be disposable, so that if the film itself got messed up, it wouldn't have to end up in the movie. You couldn't rely on one scene to make it to the next scene, so we structured it in such a way where, 'OK, so that plot element's gone' what are we missing? I mean, we tried to make that happen as little as possible. Continuity has never been my specialty. But the ultimate goal was to try and create something where the scenes weren't necessarily thematically connected."
He also used non-professional actors. This is fine. Everyone is convincing and they fit the tone. However that's another factor in the film feeling like a repudiation of narrative. Clearly that's what Green wanted. It's my problem that this made it a fight for me not to turn off the movie halfway through.
Here's another Green quote, but this one I love:
"One of the reasons I made this movie is because movies talk down to kids, put them as a cute little kid with a box of cereal and a witty joke. You watch movies like Kindergarten Cop and it's like, 'Oh, a kid said something about sex. Isn't that funny?' It's just annoying and it makes me sad for their parents."
So what's here?
1. The treatment of romance, boyfriends, etc. is ambiguous. These are children, not necessarily even teenagers yet. They might be 12 or 13. They might be only ten. (The film contains an inconsistency on this point, but that's okay because it's not as if children have never lied about their age.) However the girls talk a lot about their boyfriends, their first kisses and so on. You have no idea how far they're going. This is an interesting question, actually, and probably more so than if the film had been explicit either way. Pre-teen girls, for example, will be saying things like, "He acts too much like a little kid, so I found someone else."
2. A railroad worker who lectures everyone about salad and beautiful toilet functions.
3. Occasional talk about people being "perfect", which is slightly worrying.
4. Children who don't swear. I think I heard "hell" and "piss", but I don't remember noticing any strong stuff. They say "doo-doo", for instance. They're also capable of Very Serious Conversations. I respect Green's attempt not to talk down to children, but I have doubts about the resulting realism. There's a boy with a life-threatening condition that might have killed him if he'd ever gone in a swimming pool, for instance, who jumps in a pool to save someone and swims as if he's been doing it for years.
5. One or two funny bits, which may or may not have been intentional. I laughed hard at the new hat, although I shouldn't.
In fairness, a lot of critics love this film. It got a release by Criterion. Roger Ebert said, "This is such a lovely film. You give yourself to its voluptuous languor." Apparently Green watched Terence Malick's The Thin Red Line over and over while preparing his shoot, which doesn't surprise me because I was bored by that too. Maybe I'd get into this better on a rewatch, but this time around I simply got the impression of something that needed its audience to bring more patience and goodwill than I had to spare. I'll admit that there's plenty here to love, though. Its decaying industrial wasteland (Winston-Salem) is distinctive and it's been gorgeously shot. It has integrity. It may not be getting a recommendation from me, but it's had glowing ones from other people.