FOR THE LAST QUARTER-CENTURY, AMERICAN filmmakers have been chasing the ghost of the 1970s. Now making its run is a terrific new generation of filmmakers — most notably, P.T. Anderson, Alexander Payne, Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze — who are schooled in the freedoms enjoyed by those easy riders and raging bulls, yet whose sensibility is shaped by an era of diminished cinematic expectations. They make cult classics, not big-budget hits. They tell original stories rather than milk old genres, prefer ensemble casts to lavish star vehicles, and largely neglect broad social concerns in favor of exploring the beleaguered modern self, a variety of the higher navel-gazing that may have reached its peak in Adaptation. At its best, their work offers an inspired blend of the goofy and the sublime.

You find most of these qualities in David Gordon Green, the gifted North Carolina-based filmmaker who, at age 27, seems poised to join their ranks. Indeed, his new movie, All the Real Girls, comes wreathed in the sort of dangerously excessive Sundance accolades (ecstatic reviews, a Special Jury Prize for “emotional truth”) that threaten to make real-world audiences feel oversold and underwhelmed.

Set in a sleepy North Carolina mill town, All the Real Girls is a love story that, in its dreamy simplicity (though little else), recalls Punch-Drunk Love. Its hero, Paul (Paul Schneider), is a 22-year-old idler who might've stepped out of a Raymond Carver short story. Emotionally immature, he spends his life hanging out with his pals and caddishly bonking the local chicks. All that changes when he meets Noel (Zooey Deschanel), a virginal young woman just back from boarding school. The two fall for each other almost instantly, achieving a tremulous honesty that delights and unsettles them both. Yet, in ways they can't possibly understand, their lives are badly out of synch. While Paul seeks salvation in her innocence — “She makes me decent,” he says, and won't sleep with her — Noel wants to learn the songs of experience. The situation is ripe for betrayal, and when it inevitably comes, Paul lacks the worldly perspective to cushion their fall.

As he showed in his acclaimed $50,000 debut, George Washington (2000), Green is attuned to the poetry of ordinary life, with its longueurs and sudden bursts of deep emotion; he knows the thrill of confessing your most painful secret, or how a silly dance at a bowling alley can be the most magical thing on Earth. All the Real Girls evokes the imprisoning smallness of Paul and Noel's crumbling hometown and the vaguely disgruntled aimlessness of their friends, be it the wisecracking Bust-Ass; the self-loathing Tip, who boozes to lighten his sense of worthlessness; or the resentful town girls who warn Noel about Paul's womanizing ways. Above all, Green understands how romantic perfidy can shake up the young — not just Paul's shattering discovery that his beloved is capable of sleeping with someone else, but Noel's epiphany that she can love Paul, fuck another guy and, in that very moment, realize how much she loves Paul.

Of the two, Noel is by far the richer and more compelling creation, played with a riveting honesty by Deschanel, a startlingly intimate actress whose wide-open face has the emotional transparency one found in Gwyneth Paltrow before she got so grand. Gazing out from her intent raccoon eyes, Deschanel makes us feel the vibrancy of a young woman who's discovering the painful excitement of adulthood, including her own capacity for surprising herself, and her own hidden reserves of wisdom. In contrast, the inarticulate Paul is so emotionally arrested I kept wondering why all the local women should be so interested in him. While it's easy to sympathize with his love-struck agony (who among us has not been betrayed?), his dull inexpressiveness is a drag on a movie that's all about his struggles to become a better person. My spirits lifted each time the focus shifted away from Paul to show us more of Noel, her brother Tip, or even Paul's mother, Elvira (the great Patricia Clarkson), a faded beauty who makes her living entertaining sick kids in a clown suit.

Green is essentially a poet of moods rather than a teller of tales, and he adorns the movie with stylistic touches influenced by Terrence Malick — language that veers toward the literary, delicate natural forms juxtaposed against man-made violence, a burnished visual style that seeks to elevate commonplace reality through sheer beauty. And the film is beautiful: Shot in exquisite wide-screen by Tim Orr, it gives us a world bathed in golden light, but also, it must be said, in a wash of artistic self-importance. Like many young directors, Green wants to imbue his story with more significance than it can bear, and at moments — not least in some of the overly explicit dialogue — his calculated manner gets in the way of the honest emotion he means to convey.

Then again, you have to be pretty harsh to dwell on the whiff of pretension in an ambitious young filmmaker with as much natural talent as Green. That's the sort of thing that time burns away. Anyway, as Noel tells Paul near the end of the movie, “Nobody ever said we had to be perfect.”

WHILE DAVID GORDON GREEN IS CLEARLY finding his way — next up, an adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces — Gus Van Sant has just as clearly lost his. I say this ruefully, for after seeing My Own Private Idaho, whose scenes with the late River Phoenix are some of the most heart-rending in modern movies, I fully expected Van Sant to become the leading director of his generation. But over the last decade, he seems to have lost the ability to think and feel at the same time. He waded into sentimental goo with the shallow Good Will Hunting, followed that with his rigorous, shot-by-shot remake of Psycho (it's not for nothing that he admires Andy Warhol), and then plunged back into the schmaltz with Finding Forrester, essentially Good Will Hunting for Dummies.

Now comes Gerry, and Van Sant is again pursuing his taste for abstract experimentation. This minimalist two-hander tells the story of a couple of guys named Gerry (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) who go for a hike in the desert wilderness. In their private lingo, they use the word Gerry to mean “fuck up,” and that's precisely what they do. Abandoning the footpath to avoid all the “fanny packs and single moms,” they promptly discover they're lost — and free to spend the rest of the movie walking, bickering, climbing rocks for a lookout, desperately seeking a route that will get them out alive.

Van Sant has suggested that Gerry is about masculinity, and despite his characters' incommunicativeness — or maybe because of it — you can tell he's gesturing in that direction. As their anxiety grows, Damon's Gerry gets more and more aggressively male, while Affleck's Gerry comes to seem increasingly “feminine,” passive, dependent. Still, despite such intimations of both their subterranean homoerotic feelings and the terror such feelings induce, Van Sant ultimately reveals so little about this odd couple that we frankly don't give a damn what happens to them. Nor, apparently, does he. Their relationship pays off in a climax (straight out of von Stroheim's Greed) that's so ambiguous that those around me in the theater quite rightly sighed with annoyance.

Like Psycho, Gerry is ultimately an exercise in cinematic form, and those who enjoy such things will find their rewards not in the wisp of a story (which makes All the Real Girls seem positively Tolstoyan) but in Harris Savides' radiant photography and in the ravishing magnificence of clouds spilling over the Utah mountaintops. Partly inspired by the work of Bela Tarr, the Hungarian gloom-meister famous for his long takes, Gerry is a study in different kinds of sunlight, the physical relationship of tiny human bodies to overpowering landscapes, and the evocative power of showing events in real time: The movie's best scene is a funny 10-minute bit in which Affleck's timorous Gerry is trapped atop a high rock while his bolder pal tries to get him to jump. Watching this burst of knockabout Beckett, I was reminded how good Van Sant used to be at creating juicy, enjoyable characters, and found myself wondering why he can no longer get genuine human feeling and formal experimentation into the same film. It's not as if he's lost his independent spirit — why else make Gerry? Yet he seems to have lost his faith, if not in the world then in his dreams, for why else would a man of such gifts make a film so dessicated? Perhaps Van Sant himself doesn't have the answer. He is, after all, telling a story about being caught in the desert and not knowing your way back home.LA

ALL THE REAL GIRLS | Written and directed by DAVID GORDON GREEN | Produced by JEAN DOUMANIAN and LISA MUSKAT | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | At selected theaters

GERRY | Directed by GUS VAN SANT | Written by CASEY AFFLECK, MATT DAMON and VAN SANT | Produced by DANY WOLF | Released by ThinkFilm Inc. | At the Nuart

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