“I miss fucking you,” Kat (Shailene Woodley) purrs sincerely. “Absence makes the heart get stronger,” her lunk-headed boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) malapropos in response. Phil is, in her words, “not the brightest crayon in the box”; elsewhere in the movie, he tells her, “It’s like a vicious circus” and implores her, “Cut him some slacks.” She likes his simplicity, because he gives her what she needs — and when he starts weirdly rebuffing her, she gets it somewhere else. The fact that Kat is played by Woodley, whose roles thus far have skewed far more towards the “good girl” type, gives Gregg Araki’s White Bird in a Blizzard an extra jolt of electricity, for both the audience and the actress. And Araki slyly uses that novelty as a distraction from the clever things he’s up to elsewhere in the picture.
Kat’s sexual awakening is the thematic subject of White Bird, but the narrative is primarily concerned with her mother Eve (Eva Green), who disappears in the fall of 1988. (The period is established by the Joy Division bumper sticker on Kat’s bedside lamp.) Eve was once a great beauty, now bored stiff by a suburban homemaker life spent with husband Brock (Christopher Meloni, very good) and Kat, their only child. One day, Kat comes home and her mother is gone. “Oh my god, stop being so melodramatic,” she tells her worried father. “She’ll show up.”
But she doesn’t. In flashbacks, Kat recalls a problematic childhood, and a relationship that grew more strained as she became a woman, one whose body “somehow made her resent me even more.” Eve starts swilling wine and making inappropriate accusations and confessions to her daughter, who is understandably creeped out. Her parents’ marriage has been cold for years, and there are hints that Eve had a wandering eye; she starts walking around in see-through nighties when Phil is over, eying him like a hungry cat spying a mouse.
Eve’s body disappeared, Kat recalls, “just as I was becoming nothing but my body, flesh and blood and raging hormones.” Araki’s best work is about a feeling, a moment carefully recalled, and here, he captures with great precision the uncertainty and anxiety of trying to figure out one’s own sexuality — what it means, how to control it, and how to use it. When Phil turns cold, Kat decides, quite consciously, to seduce the much older detective in charge of her mother’s disappearance; she shows up at his apartment (ostensibly to share some information she “remembered”) in a short skirt and heavy makeup, and the careful way Araki stages the scene — and Woodley and co-star Thomas Jane play it — suggests an encounter that’s less erotic than coldly calculated, by both participants. When the older man tells her, “You came here to seduce me. Congratulations, it worked,” he doesn’t seem turned on; he gives the line a flat, expressionless, almost sad reading, the encounter less a thrill than a business-like obligation.
Araki fills his frames with perfect little touches (there’s something positively applause-worthy about the leather sectional in Jane’s nondescript apartment). He knows which scenes to play straight, and when to go arch. His instincts occasionally fail him; Green, who has lately been the only entertaining thing in several bad movies, is the only thing really wrong with this one, her too-campy playing approaching, at times, Dunaway as Crawford in Mommie Dearest. It’s fun to see Gabby Sibide in a role so close to her cheery, giddy-teenager persona, even if the “naturalistic” dialogue in their hangout scenes is somewhat strained. And there are occasional distracting anachronisms (were any suburban white girls saying “he had game” in ’88?).
Oddly, through much of the film, the central missing-mom mystery is kind of a dud — the window dressing is far more interesting, and big hints are dropped that indicate a fairly predictable outcome. But then Araki ingeniously turns our expectations inside out, with a closing section that genuinely blindsided this viewer. Araki pulls off a rather remarkable bait-and-switch here, indicative of a filmmaking sophistication that continues to impress (particularly after sitting through the ugly, screeching likes of The Doom Generation). And Woodley reminds us that she’s not just the hippie queen of YA adaptations, but a bracing actress who’s not averse to taking some gutty risks.
White Bird in a Blizzard is out today in limited release. It is also available on demand.