Elizabeth Wood; image credit: Helga Esteb / Shutterstock.com
Despite Katie’s initial suspicion of the boys — and in contrast to standard skewed American racist logic — Wood said, “To me the danger didn’t come from the boys in the neighborhood so much as the white girl who moved in.” And, in fact, the film is based on Wood’s own experience moving to Ridgewood 15 years ago, though she has emphasized this isn’t autobiography; the romance that’s central to the film (and the systemic and intersectional hardships beleaguering that romance) are actually based on something her former roommate experienced. Wood said she ultimately went to film school with the “sole idea” that she wanted to learn how to render that experience onscreen.
“When I was having this experience that the film is inspired by, I knew that I wanted it to be my first film. But I knew that I did not quite yet understand. So I did take the time; I’m glad I waited. Each season I waited, it became a bigger project, more serious,” she said, explaining that the wait was actually prolonged by yet another year after she unexpectedly became pregnant and had a child with her husband/collaborator Gabriel Nussbaum, who produced the film. She thought of the project as entirely DIY — shooting it herself, editing it herself, doing it all on no budget — ut ended up bringing on Nerve cinematographer Michael Simmonds and Love Is Strange/Elvis & Nixon editor Michael Taylor, as well as a cast with such known TV actors as Saylor and Chris Noth, who plays the lawyer working on Blue’s case.
If you continue to analyze the film through an intersectional lens, you see how much its narrative is determined by notions of power structures, so much so that this strength almost even becomes its weakness: it comes close to treating its characters as archetypes within a social hierarchy. I can’t think of a single character who varies from the roles these notions dictate: the men of color lack the social mobility of white men and are only given augmented visibility by the police intent on incarcerating them, the white girls are privileged and unfettered from any notion of responsibility, and the biggest oppressor to them is white men. But if some of the larger, legitimately upsetting plot points can also register as too predictable, its still saying something potent that the entrenched nature of social injustice might make for narrative predictability.
Indeed, if White Girl may sound like a think-piece about a film rather than a film, the actual, sensorily immersive experience Wood has created resists such criticism. The film’s stunning quiet moments, its cultural specificity, its subtle gestures, the interplay of characters physically in wild but un-traumatic moments counterbalance a more traumatic plot that only occasionally seems too driven by theoretical lines. At the Q & A, I asked the cast and Wood how they addressed the social questions of the film in rehearsal, and how that was balanced by an attempt to create full characters.
“I feel like we started on that bigger, meta version,” Wood said. She had a personal essay she’d written that she gave them — “about [her] own experience” and why she “wanted to make this, and about the characters.”
“I really began talking about the themes and the world we wanted to inhabit together,” she continued. “And as we got closer to showtime, it became more and more specific to your character, and not thinking about the bigger picture and what your effect is on others — just who you are, moment to moment.”
“Why would that still be so enticing, knowing that these are the white people moving into the neighborhood and changing things? Why would it be enticing when everyone else sees it as a threat?” said Marc, who’d explained earlier in the Q & A that he grew up in Sheepshead Bay, that “a lot of the things depicted in the movie” are things he’s “very familiar with and waited 18 years to get away from,” and that he moved to a California and built a music career and new life. “And [Elizabeth] said, ‘growing up in Brooklyn, why did you want to leave?’ What did you think was on the other side of that fence?”
Right now, white people need to discuss and figure shit out when doors are closed — it’s not just saying you care when you have a black friend in the room. [It’s about] having actual conversations about what we can do to help end hundreds of years of oppression.”
Though the film is so interested in an intersectional dissection, it still centers a white characters’ experiences, thereby making a film whose appeal itself might skew more white. I asked Wood about the film Nasty Baby , Sebastien Silva’s highly underrated, similarly potent and relatively frightening take on class, race, gender and sexual collisions in NY’s gentrifying outer boroughs (which”rocked her world”). Though that other film depicts a multiracial and diversely sexually oriented bourgeois-bohemian class colliding with an older working class, it’s also another film told from the perspective of the gentrifiers, and also clearly marketed towards an artistic-minded, middle class audience. Why had Wood chosen to write her film so clearly from this perspective?
“For anyone of color, hearing about white privilege is nothing new; like ‘Gimme a fucking break. Are you kidding me? I grew up hearing about this everyday,'” she told me. “But as white Americans we didn’t grow up hearing about this everyday, and that is how the system continues oppressing and preventing people from fixing shit — we didn’t grow up with the vocabulary or talking points. Right now, white people need to discuss and figure shit out when doors are closed — it’s not just saying you care when you have a black friend in the room. [It’s about] having actual conversations about what we can do to help end hundreds of years of oppression.”
I asked if she worried that, given pop cultural media’s current relationship to gender and race, she’d eventually misspeak or sound ignorant about such hot-button issues — where sounding ignorant can be career-damaging. “It’s in many ways still uncomfortable for me, as it should be,” she said. “You never want to say or do the wrong thing, but you have to let go of that. It should not be easy and rewarding to discuss the privilege I’ve experienced in my life. It’s fucked up and it’s gross, and in the film it’s fucked up and it’s gross, and that’s why I wanted to make a film about it.”