Like Malick's film, George Washington is set in the poverty-stricken rural South -- North Carolina in the case of Washington, the Texas panhandle for Days of Heaven -- and both films possess a visual beauty that at once belies and reinforces the air of inevitable tragedy that hovers always around the stories' edges. Much as Days director of photography Nestor Almendros created images so breathtaking they were like body blows (and ultimately took home an Academy Award for Best Cinematography), George Washington cameraman Tim Orr, in his feature debut, reveals a strong sensitivity toward physical and emotional landscapes.
The comparison between the two films should not be overstated, however, for in terms of story line, themes, time period, and characters they are very different. George Washington concerns a group of youngsters, dirt-poor blacks and whites whiling away the long summer days at the local swimming hole and discussing romantic relationships while painting their fingernails. United in poverty and the ongoing struggle of daily life, they enjoy a surprising level of racial harmony; even the slightly older white men who labor nearby are unexpectedly kind and sympathetic toward the younger, predominantly black kids (although the sole interracial couple keep their relationship a secret).
This is the summer, Nasia informs us in voice-over, that she broke up with Buddy (Curtis Cotton III), a skinny, bespectacled boy of 13, and developed a crush on the titular character, George (Donald Holden), a strange boy who always wears a helmet because the back of his skull never hardened, leaving him vulnerable to injury.
George and his younger sister, orphaned some five years prior, live with their aunt and uncle. Uncle Damascus (Eddie Rouse, one of the two professional actors in the film) is an angry, unstable man, abusive toward his nephew although unexpectedly affecting in a later scene when he apologizes for a particularly cruel deed. None of the movie's adults provides a particularly positive role model for the younger generation.
A mood piece that straddles the worlds of narrative film and documentary, George Washington offers a slice of life at a time when that life suddenly goes awry. The tragedy lies as much in the aftermath of what happens -- the emotional impact it has on the unwitting participants -- as in the incident itself. Rudderless, without guidance of any kind, the children slip into their own private hells. Shockingly, some of the children have been so brutalized by life that they have no emotional reaction at all. In the movie's most poignant scene, a distraught Vernon (an exceptionally impressive Damian Jewan Lee) cries, "All my life people have let me down. I wish I had my own tropical island."
This isn't to say that the film doesn't have its moments of humor and sweetness, for it has many. But ultimately there is no escaping the more sobering aspects of these children's lives, and the viewer is left with an overwhelming sense of sadness and waste.
The subtle use of natural sound and music adds greatly to the film's power, especially in conjunction with the arresting images. Days of Heaven seems to have been a particularly significant influence in this regard. But while that film had a beauty and artistry more closely associated with paintings, Green and Orr's marriage of narrative and documentary styles produces moving pictures with the potency of still photographs.