Set in the poorest parts of North Carolina, George Washington follows a small group of youngsters and the adults who care for them over the course of a hot, bleak summer. Shot in CinemaScope, the film captures the endless ennui of a Carolina July with painful clarity. But the undernourished script is little more than a series of slow-paced, opaque character sketches that lead nowhere.

Reciting a self-consciously poetic voice-over, young Nasia (Candace Evanofski) introduces her friends: Sonya, a lonely little girl with stringy blonde hair; Vernon (Damian Jewan Lee), a chubby, amiable ringleader; his cousin Buddy (Curtis Cotton, III), who just broke up with Nasia; and George (Donald Holden), a quiet, introspective youth. George suffers from a rare medical condition: The bones in his skull haven't fused, leaving him vulnerable to injury. George isn't allowed to swim, and is often forced to wear a broken football helmet for protection.

George's unlikely condition is exploited for all its maudlin possibilities. The film is filled with close-ups of George staring morosely as the other children frolic in the local pool or, more frequently, in weed-strewn lots and muddy alleys. The screenplay, by debut director David Gordon Green, piles on the pathos, giving George a stray dog who is then murdered by his Uncle Damascus (Eddie Rouse). Green's idea of restraint is to refrain from showing the dog's actual death. Still, as a teary Damascus confesses what happened to his dumbstruck nephew, the film tumbles into the most excessive sort of sentimentality.

Composed of moments rather than events, George Washington dawdles over minor incidents: children looking through junk, workers loafing over lunch, a boy and his date driving through town on a motor scooter, Damascus smoking in his bathtub. Tim Orr's cinematography brings a burnished glow to the material, but can't disguise how trite or contrived the content can be. At one point, Buddy dons a crocodile mask and recites from the Bible on the trashed stage of a derelict auditorium. He is also at the center of the film's only legitimate narrative twist, as reckless roughhousing in an abandoned public toilet leads to his accidental death. George and his friends decide to cover up the accident, burying Buddy's corpse in a garbage-filled lot. The decision leads to predictable, drawn-out repercussions that make up the bulk of the film.

The children generally give natural, unforced performances. It's the screenplay that feels artificial. The relentlessly barren landscapes, inert dramatic situations and fatalistic story line all evoke the worst excesses of 1950s neorealism. George Washington mistakes depicting poverty with somehow explaining it. Its characters exist in a limbo, unable or unwilling to better themselves. The filmmakers not only can't imagine better lives for them, but apparently wouldn't find them interesting if they weren't poor and desperate.

--Daniel Eagan