Thursday 19 March 2015

White Bird in a Blizzard: a dark and powerful teen whodunit


White Bird in a Blizzard
Director: Gregg Araki
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Christopher Meloni 
Running time: 91 mins

Araki made his name in the ’90s with the sex and drugs-fuelled “Teen Apocalypse Trilogy” of Totally Fucked Up, The Doom Generation, and Nowhere. It was all good, transgressive, Larry Clark-style fun but it wasn’t until 2004’s superb Mysterious Skin that the writer/director really caught my eye. That film – based on a novel by Scott Heim – told the story of two teenage boys both of whom had been sexually abused by their school baseball coach. It dealt with how the assaults had warped the lives of the pair and the wildly different ways they found to cope with it. I saw the movie for a second time recently and not only did Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance as a teenage rent-boy knock my socks off all over again, everything else about it did too. To handle such perilous subject matter so sensitively and artfully is a significant feat and the film should be far better known than it is.

In its own quiet way, White Bird in a Blizzard is every bit as dark – and almost as impressive – as Mysterious Skin; a canny mix of whodunit thriller and coming-of-age drama. Again based on a novel – this time by Laura Kasischke – it tells the story of Kat Connor (Woodley), a bright and beautiful teenager living in small-town America in the late-’80s/early-’90s. Despite appearances to the contrary, Kat’s life is far from perfect. Her thick-as-a-brick boyfriend (“It’s a vicious circus”) has suddenly lost all interest in sex and, worse still, her parents’ loveless marriage comes to an abrupt end when mother Eve (Green) mysteriously vanishes one day.

The story is told partly in flashback as we become privy to the events leading up to the disappearance; has unhappy alcoholic Eve grown so disillusioned she’s abandoned her family, or are there more sinister reasons behind her exit? Araki teases this question effectively throughout, mischievously wrong-footing you again and again as he holds off on a definitive answer until the film’s final minutes. Green is superb here – a growling, glowering study in stunted ambition and middle-aged frustration. The kind of mean drunk who’d give Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? a run for her money.

That which is hidden or missing looms oppressively over pretty much everything in the film. Eve – like the white bird of the title – has disappeared but her identity as a person seemed to dissolve the moment she married dullard husband Brock (Meloni). She ceased to be herself, wasted her life (her words) and is now jealous of the gorgeous young daughter blossoming as she withers. “I used to be you” she tells Kat bitterly as her daughter preens semi-naked in front of the bathroom mirror. It’s a similar idea to one explored in recent horror movie Honeymoon – when you become a couple or marry, how much of yourself do you give away? If White Bird is to be believed the answer is quite a bit.

With its plucky but flawed teenage protagonist and '80s indie-rock soundtrack (The Cure, New Order, and Siouxsie & the Banshees) you can see a bit of John Hughes’ DNA in White Bird, while the film’s sinister secrets and mysteries evoke all manner of “dark underbelly of suburbia” movies (Arlington Road, Blue Velvet, American Beauty). However, Araki is smart enough as a writer and skilled enough as a director to transcend his influences and mash-up different genres effortlessly.

Having no interest in the mawkish delights of The Fault in our Stars, or YA fare like The Hunger Games Divergent, Woodley is an actress who has remained off my radar. And that has clearly been my loss because she lights up the film like a firework display; a perfect mix of girl-next-door naïveté, wounded innocence and bad-girl angst. Kat seems flatly unperturbed by her mother’s vanishing act at first – maybe expecting the mercurial Eve to one day return as if nothing had happened – but as she grows further into womanhood, the absence is keenly felt and the mystery nags at her more and more. Perhaps Kat comes to realise she’s more like Eve than she realises – her terrible romantic choices are testament to that.

Rating: WWWW

White Bird is a Blizzard is available now on VOD and DVD


WWWW = Wonderful
WWW = Worthy
WW = Watchable
W = Woeful

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