George Washington is watching a candle burn slowly. A tale of kids stuck with an adult cover-up, the sharp contrast highlights the plight of people living in the fringes, products of a ruthless economic system. Director David Gordon Green frames it in the rural North Carolina town that Nasia, Buddy, George, Sonya, and Vernon call home. The kids play in rundown buildings and rusting playgrounds where bleakness consumes all hope and prospect.
While childhood is the theme of the film, it’s the adults that offer glimpses into their future. As they fool around the railroads, workers engage with them in friendly banter, but the mood is always somber and tired. The adults are tired of working. The kids are tired of dreaming. Everyone is tired of this cycle. So it’s not a surprise to see adults act with apathy towards the young–such as when George’s uncle kill a stray dog George found and cherished.
But then the uncle apologized. It’s not an apology that can undo the psychological abuse he’s inflicted on George, and it’s not exactly comforting, but it was still an apology. Finding empathy in the fringes–where human decency seems to be routinely thrown out the window, only puts into perspective how easy it is for the spectator to accept realities where people live without feelings, hopes or dreams. In many cases, it’s this adaptability that allows these kids to cope, but it’s also this same trait that allows the outside world to let them suffer.
When tragedy strikes, the kids are confronted with a burden they are ill prepared to confront. Some mimic the actions that their parents would take, others hide in denial, but George commits to being a superhero. George has always been in a world of his own, born with sensitive skin and a soft skull that contributes towards a mental disability. After risking his life to save a drowning boy, he dons a cape to bring a little brightness to the small town. He spends time guiding traffic and patrolling the streets, but his greatest act of heroism may be overcoming the cycle of depression that looms over the city.
That doesn’t mean others don’t think about getting away. In a heartbreaking monologue, Vernon expresses his desire to escape to a remote island, escape to a new planet, escape anywhere. But for every George that finds a purpose and goal, there are many more Vernons, Buddys, and Sonyas that don’t get very far.
George Washington is detailed and compassionate, offering a voice to kids that are often unseen and unheard. The future remains murky, conclusions are not drawn, but until the last bit of wick melts, there remains light–and hope.